In March, Jasper Hicks received vile messages from some of his classmates, after using the boy’s washroom at J.J. Bowlen Junior High School in Edmonton.
The texts, which were sent in a lengthy group chat that included multiple other students and shared with Global News, expressed blatant transphobia and hateful comments towards the teen.
“I could just switch genders mid-day,” reads one text. “So I could just walk into the girls bathroom whenever. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Jasper, do you have a penis or a vagina?” reads another. “Let me just break it down for you.”
“There was messages that said ‘Jasper, nobody loves you, nobody gets you,” Jasper’s mom, Amanda Hicks said. “They were vicious. It was hard to read.”
“I just want to educate you,” Jasper responded to one student. “This is literally harassment.”
Jasper returned to school in January for the first time after transitioning. The group chat was his first experience with transphobia, but he said he wasn’t surprised.
“This sounds bad…but, it was kind of bound to happen,” Jasper told Global News. “I was mentally prepared for it anyway.”
J.J Bowlen’s principal brought Jasper in to discuss the texts. His parents, Amanda and Corey Hicks, said the principal suggested Jasper use a gender neutral washroom or a staff bathroom instead. They said Jasper was told “boys will be boys” in response to his experience with the other students, while two of his friends were present inside the office.
“It was unbelievably disappointing,” Amanda said. “This school has created a culture where these types of conversations are okay.”
In a statement to Global News, an Edmonton Catholic School Division (ECSD) spokesperson said “we are deeply saddened that the student had an ongoing negative experience during such a pivotal time in his life. We are committed to continuing to work with the family to make sure their son feels safe and welcome in the school.”
ECSD declined to comment on any specifics between staff or students, due to privacy legislation.
A letter addressed to the Hicks family from the deputy superintendent, Tim Cusack, detailed that the J.J. Bowlen principal “expressed his genuine and profound remorse regarding the way this matter has unfolded.” It went on to say that he “fully acknowledges that despite the intent of his interactions in support of Jasper, the impact was not as intended.”
Under the direction of ECSD, All J.J. Bowlen staff, including its principal, are undergoing inclusivity training.
The Hicks are now calling on ECSD to provide mandatory training for all staff and students in the district.
ECSD said it acknowledges “we have work to do with the school community to ensure all students, staff and families will be provided with an inclusive, welcoming, caring…environment.”
Why Jasper is speaking out
The 14-year-old said he understands speaking about his experiences publicly could lead to more transphobia — both online and at school.
But, he felt it was important to try to use his own experience as a teachable moment.
“People that don’t understand me or don’t accept me, are just ignorant,” he explained. “They don’t know the facts. They just need to learn.”
Jasper said he is hopeful that other transgender kids may take comfort in hearing him share his story firsthand.
“So they know they aren’t alone. There are other people out there going through the same things,” Jasper said.
“We are very proud of the strength that Jasper has, but what about the other students that didn’t have that strength?” Amanda said. “Reading through that chat…through those horrible messages, the harassment…he was trying to educate. He was trying to make the world a better place.”
Amanda and Corey believe without further action, Jasper’s experience will continue to mirror the stories of other trans teens.
“Being an ally is an every day thing. It’s not a thing that happens one week in June,” Amanda said. “How do we stand up and protect our youth today?”
How to support trans teens
Dr. Kris Wells, a MacEwan University professor and leading national researcher on gender and youth, said Jasper’s story can be a learning opportunity for all of us.
“I really want to celebrate his courage and strength for speaking out,” Wells said during an interview on Global News at Noon. “That resiliency is amazing.”
Wells said there are four things a school can do to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth:
- Inclusive curriculum
- Finding supportive teachers
- Comprehensive sexual and gender identity policies
- Visibility and inclusion
Wells said if other students are uncomfortable with a trans student using the same washroom as them, they are the ones who should be getting an accommodation to use a private washroom.
“Because otherwise we are sending the wrong message.
“Trans youth are not the problem here, transphobia is.”
Though not all transgender teens will be ready to share their story openly like Jasper did, Wells said it’s essential to find a trusted adult to talk to.
“You don’t have to justify your existence. You are valid. You deserve to be safe and included in your school.”