School Nursing

The Relentless School Nurse: Unity and Inclusion Found in Graduation Gowns & Bathrooms Signs

Mary Blackborow refers to herself as a worker bee, I call her a school health thought leader.  Mary is a pragmatic problem solver with a brilliant mind for simplifying the most complex issues. She has the logic of an engineer with the heart of a nurse. Mary’s logical thinking and compassionate care served her NJ high school students well for 18 years. She is a student advocate and champion for social justice.

Advocacy is listed as the first characteristic under the Leadership principal of NASN’s Framework for 21st Century School Nursing Practice. Mary’s advocacy needs to be celebrated and duplicated, she serves as an example for all of us. She recognized that there was an increasing presence of students who were questioning their gender identity and grappling with feeling included in a binary world. Mary also identified a gap in her school staff’s understanding of LGBTQ issues and took action by providing professional development.

When I first learned of Mary’s ingenious response to ensure equity and inclusion for her LGBTQ graduating seniors, I asked her to share her story on my blog. In quintessential Mary fashion, she downplayed the significance of her ability to change school policy so that all students wore the same color graduation gown! Changing long-held traditions through hard-fought policy changes are complex feats of relentless advocacy. Mary stood for her most marginalized students and did not stop until inclusion and equity prevailed.

School nurses, like Mary Blackborow, are examples of Servant Leadership a term first coined by Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader” a famous essay written in 1970. Greenleaf wrote:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is a leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them, there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” – Robert Greenleaf 


Read Mary’s advocacy story in her own words:

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Mary Blackborow, MSN, RN, NCSN

“Several years ago,  our wellness committee identified a lack of education on LGBTQ issues as a need of the staff.  As the lead, I worked with the administration and they supported interactive training sessions for staff in all the district schools.  The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provided the workshops.

It was clear that at the high school, we were having more students identify as transgender and I worked with the guidance department and the school leadership team to help decrease some of the barriers for the students.  Our high school has always had different color graduation gowns for male and female students and I along with guidance began to lobby the school leadership team for single color gowns for the graduating class that would reflect inclusion and unity. The school leadership team explored the options and in 2017 all students wore the same gown for graduation. 

 In 2017, there was the second training of district staff and that led to a request by me to the principal to change the signage in the single stall bathrooms to signage that allowed any gender in those bathrooms.   There was existing signage in the health office and the principal agreed to use this signage in the building including common area bathrooms, ie the principal’s office, etc.  

Due to the retirement of the current principal, interim principal and finally a third principal who also agreed with the plan, this was implemented in January of 2018 at the high school. Certainly, it was a team effort that put students first and began breaking down some of the barriers.   There is still a long way to go and it is a beginning.” – Mary Blackborow  

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Bio:  Mary Blackborow, MSN, RN, NCSN recently retired from her position as a school nurse at North Brunswick Township High School in NJ. Mary also has extensive experience in community health nursing. She worked in North Brunswick Township Schools for the 18 years empowering students to take responsibility for their health and wellness. Mary graduated from Kings County School of Nursing with a diploma and received her BSN from Trenton State College in 1983. She graduated from Monmouth University in 2007 with an MSN in school nursing.  Mary was on the editorial advisory board of the NASN School Nurse and in 2015 became a Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Fellow. In addition, Mary held leadership positions in county and state school nursing associations since 2007 and became NASN’s Treasurer in 2017.



1 thought on “The Relentless School Nurse: Unity and Inclusion Found in Graduation Gowns & Bathrooms Signs”

  1. Mary you are not one to toot your own horn, however it’s so important for school nurses to hear how one nurse can be a powerful advocate for change. Even though you retired from your school this year, you left it in a better place then when you started. Congratulations on your retirement!

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