By the time Ella Grant started Grade 8 she was used to being “the weird kid.” She had been on the receiving end of nasty looks and the subject of schoolyard gossip before.
But nothing prepared her to handle the name teachers and students called her numerous times in her first months at her new junior high in 2013: Eliot.
“This was the one time it really got to me,” Ella said.
That’s because the then-13-year-old student had hoped to start the school year living as a female.
Her mother Carla met with staff at Victoria School of the Arts to ensure her daughter’s male birth name and gender would be kept private.
“They asked us if we wanted to keep it private from everybody, meaning the student body and the staff, or just from the student body,” Carla Grant explained. “We asked them to keep it private just from the students.”
But that didn’t happen.
Carla describes one of the outings when Ella’s male birth name was projected on a screen in front of 42 students.
A recent ruling from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta details other breaches in privacy.
“On two of these occasions, a teacher also called out or had another student call out attendance from the screen, announcing the complainant’s legal name to the other students in the class. On one occasion a supply teacher loudly discussed with the complainant the process to have her name changed,” adjudicator Keri Ridley wrote.
“It was a little disheartening,” Ella recalled. “It wasn’t only the first time being outed like at that school, it was the first time ever. And it’s really hard to explain but it wasn’t really a great start.”
Carla was concerned about retaliation from students but fortunately the outing didn’t result in bullying or any kind of violence. It did affect Ella, though. She skipped school, suffered from anxiety and was “really broken,” Carla recalls.
“It was terrifying. Of all the things I worried about happening when we made the decision for her to go to Vic, being outed by the teachers wasn’t even on my list.”
Marlene Hanson, Edmonton Public Schools supervisor in diversity education, called the incidents “human error.” Two years ago, attendance rosters included students’ legal names.
Carla said at the time the school held meetings and sent emails to ensure staff didn’t use the birth name again.
“Everybody was very apologetic but nobody was accountable and we’re not OK with that. The nature of privacy is that once it’s out you can’t get it back.”
Feeling alone and frustrated, Carla filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, which recently released a decision on the issue.
Kris Wells, a professor with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services calls it a landmark decision.
In an email to Global News, Wells wrote the ruling will require school boards to review policies to make sure they are “specific and detailed when it comes to protecting the privacy of transgender students, which includes the right to confidentiality in all aspects of the school environment such as name changes, pronouns, school records, washrooms, sports teams, field trips and locker rooms. Policies should be detailed and specific to avoid any ‘outing’ of students inadvertent or otherwise.”
Edmonton Public Schools has already made changes.
“The preferred name, with parental consent, is what is put on the official record and that includes attendance, progress reports, any information that is sent up to Alberta Education as well,” Hanson said. She adds a safe contact person has been established in each school. These staff members support LGBTQ students and now have additional training to meet the specific needs of transgender youth.
Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the ruling in a statement to Global News.
“There remain some challenges when it comes to official student records and a student’s preferred name. These issues were raised as a point of discussion during development of our guidelines to support welcoming and caring schools. We committed at the time to examining this matter closely and remain committed to doing so.”
Eggen adds his staff will reach out to Ella Grant in the coming weeks.
“I would like to talk to her about her experience.”
Carla and Ella Grant hope the decision protects the privacy of transgender students in the future so no one else experiences what the teen transgender student went through.
“Of course it’s the outcome we’ve been hoping for,” Carla said. “The next question is always, ‘So what?’ What can we do with this decision now and how is it going to be disseminated to all the schools across Alberta that this isn’t something you can decide to do or not to do. It’s not a decision based on the values of the administrators. It’s something that needs to be done according to the law to protect the privacy of the students in the school.”