Safe Havens for LGBTQ Students 
 With the need to realign human and financial resources and deploy integrated supports, buy-in by the decision makers is a vital first measure 
BY JOHN MALLOY/School Administrator, February 2020

John Malloy, director of education in Toronto, Ontario, participates in the annual Toronto Pride Parade, along with other school district representatives.
On a hot, sunny day in June, a massive flatbed truck decorated from top to bottom in rainbow balloons, pride flags and a Toronto District School Board banner cruised down Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. On it, dozens of students, senior administrators of the school district and board members danced to upbeat music and waved at more than one million onlookers while wearing their student-designed TDSB Pride T-shirts bearing the message TDSBe Yourself.

I marched alongside this tremendous display in my role as the school district’s director of education (superintendent) and took great pride in this stunning visual demonstration of our ongoing commitment as LGBTQ allies. We showed our community how inclusive, supportive and progressive we are as an organization.

A Landmark Stance
The diverse, 245,000-student Toronto school system long has been a leader in supporting our LGBTQ community. Over the last 20 years, we have made positive gains, some propelled by the district’s progressive nature and some in response to provincial legislation on human rights.

In 1995, the school district opened the Triangle Program, a high school safe haven for LGBTQ youth in need of a smaller, safer space where they could find and build community.

In 1999, we developed a groundbreaking equity foundation statement that, for the first time, addressed anti-homophobia and sexual orientation, and the district’s human rights policy, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its list of prohibited grounds for discrimination.

Since then, we continue to push the envelope to further support our LGBTQ community by developing anti-homophobia resources and curriculum, hosting an annual Gay-Straight Alliance student conference, launching a systemwide positive spaces campaign and introducing leadership awards for student-led gay-straight alliances, among other actions.

This progression happened because staff pushed it forward and our board of trustees (which declared itself a gay-straight alliance) endorsed the measures. Every action was a critical step in building a foundation of acceptance among board members and within our community.

Understanding Needs
Now, our work is taking this foundation to the next level because, in spite of progress, our LGBTQ students are still experiencing struggles, especially related to their physical and mental well-being. My focus as director has been to remove the school district’s barriers that impact student success and well-being, whether it is opportunity, access, resources or personal supports.

Hearing directly from our students is vital in knowing and understanding their needs and wants. To that end, every four years, we conduct a student census and every two years a school climate survey, where we gather data directly from students to identify changes, trends and ongoing needs of our diverse community. The value of this rich data is unparalleled and serves as an essential tool in determining where support should be focused, where change is required and what is working well.

While we have always asked high school students about their sexual orientation, our most recent census also asked students in grades 7 and 8. Of note, 4 percent of students in grades 7 and 8 identify as LGBTQ+ and 2 percent identify as Questioning, while in grades 9-12, 7 percent of students identify as LGBTQ and 2 percent as Questioning. In a school board of our size, this represents more than 6,000 students in grades 7-12.

Survey results showed the emotional well-being of LGBTQ students was significantly lower than those of their heterosexual peers and their well-being data had dropped significantly over the past four years. Their overall school experience — which includes measures about enjoying school, feeling they belong and believing they get the support they need — is lower. The students felt less safe in school, were more likely to be bullied and didn’t feel as accepted by their peers or as comfortable discussing their problems with friends.

Overall, this shows that there is still much work to do to support the school experience of our LGBTQ students. When students feel safe, engaged and included, they not only have a positive sense of well-being, but chances are their academic success increases, too.

Empowering Solutions

The We Stand Equity Club at Thomas L. Wells Public School in Toronto is a student organization promoting wide representation of students and inclusion.

Knowing each of our students and understanding their unique identities and lived experiences allows school staff to create relevant and reflective classrooms, schools and learning environments. All staff are experts in their own local community, which comes from hearing directly from our students and their families as well as reviewing data such as census results, test scores, attendance and school climate surveys.

We recognize that all of our school communities have different needs and the type of support that works in one school may not be what another school needs. Students at one school may want to start a gay-straight alliance, while another school may choose to focus on bullying prevention. Schools are empowered to find local solutions, supported by the school system, to meet the unique needs of their students and community.

When staff learn about their students — all of their students — they can find meaningful and relevant resources to improve their learning environments. For our LGBTQ students, it may be providing books where they see themselves reflected in the characters; having open and honest conversations about Pride Month, gender identity or sexual orientation; or simply ensuring they have a safe space should they want to talk, connect or share.

Recognizing that different students need different supports and giving staff not only the encouragement but the direction and assistance to support students is critical. With this model of empowering schools to provide localized support, we are making great strides in our schools and classrooms to be inclusive and welcoming and supportive of all students’ needs and identities.

We continue to make changes at the system level to ensure an equitable and inclusive system for everyone. By making changes to policies, we better support our LGBTQ students from a systemwide, decision-making level. Last year, our board of trustees approved a revised equity policy that underscores our commitment to fairness, equity, diversity, acceptance, inclusion and the elimination of all forms of discrimination. These are essential principles of our school system, integrated into all policies, procedures, programs, operations and practices.

Last year, we introduced a revised dress code policy that recognizes that decisions about dress reflect individual expressions of identity, socio-cultural norms and economic factors and are important elements of a person’s health and well-being. Part of the focus of the policy, as well as the communication around it, centered on respecting others and reminding students that schools should be safe, welcoming spaces, no matter what people choose to wear.

John Malloy with students on the International Day of Pink, an anti-bullying event conducted annually throughout the Ontario province during the second week of April.
Beyond Displays
Much work remains, but I am proud of the work we have done in support of the LGBTQ community in the Toronto District School Board. And each June, when our 582 schools across the board raise the Pride flag, they know this isn’t just a visual display of our commitment to be allies for the month, but a commitment to LGBTQ students embedded in our daily actions and in ways that really make a difference in the lives of our students every day.

JOHN MALLOY is the director of education of the Toronto District School Board in Toronto, Ontario. Twitter: @malloy_john

Additional Resources
The author suggests superintendents tap into his district and other organizations for a fuller understanding of ways to build a safer and more welcoming school environment for LGBTQ students and families.

» Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity is a leader in anti-discrimination work and runs programming for schools in Canada and the U.S. Hundreds of volunteers make it possible for them to reach 250,000 people annually. Information about campaigns, such as the Day of Pink (see below) and downloadable resources are available.

» GLSEN is a national network of educators, students and local chapters to make schools more inclusive for LGBTQ students. Educator resources include information on organizing a “Day of Silence.”

» International Day of Pink is an international event to promote anti-bullying. It started when two high school students wanted to support a student who was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. On the Day of Pink, students and staff are encouraged to wear something pink as an act of kindness. It is held on the second Wednesday in April.

» Send the Right Message is a campaign created by Planned Parenthood of Toronto in conjunction with the Toronto District School Board and other groups on how high school students can support students who are LBGTQ.

» University of Toronto — Ontario Institute for Studies in Education published a short article and video on “Four Ways Schools Can Create Safe and More Welcoming Environments for LGBTQ families and Students." Also, research from University of Toronto and the project’s website.

(events, initiatives and guidelines)
» Safe and Positive School Spaces. A campaign to provide safe places for LGBTQ students.

» TDSB EnVision Forum is a one-day annual conference for middle and high school students that offers LGBTQ students and their allies information and resource.

» TDSB Guidelines for the Accommodation of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students and Staff. The guidelines provide teachers and families with language to talk about gender diversity and inclusivity at school and identify online and local resources for LGBTQ families and students.