“I'm a little concerned because I heard the term 'bigot’ thrown around a lot,” said Smithfield School Committee Chair Richard Iannitelli toward the end of a four-hour long, Saturday morning “workshop” to discuss changes to the school system’s policy on Transgender, Gender Nonconforming, and Transitioning Students. “And when you throw around a word like that, it kind of loses its value and when you are really faced with a bigot, you won't even know it, okay?
“Because I don't feel any of these school committee members are bigots. They have an opinion, they were elected to express their opinion, and they take things into consideration as to how they should be working. That does not make them bigoted, nor does it make the parents who have a particular belief that they think they need to know [about their studnet's using restrooms that align with their gender identity] versus the ones that don't need to know. They're not any more bigoted than that, so they don't throw words around like 'transphobia.' This thing has turned off into gay and lesbian and queer and all that [but] it's strictly the transgender issues.”
Smithfield School Committee Member Benjamin Caisse responded: “I agree that throwing around the words bigot and transphobic - those are very loaded and powerful words and can be hurtful. But when you're proposing an act to discriminate against a particular population of our students, I don't know what else to call it.”
The Smithfield School Committee this year has a Republican majority [Chair Iannitelli, Vice-Chair Jessica Sala, and Committee Member Amanda Fafard] that seems intent on challenging Rhode Island’s educational policies and laws around the treatment of transgender, gender nonconforming, and transitioning students. [See previous reporting here, here, and here.]
The policy, as it exists, allows students to socially transition without the school notifying parents. Social transitioning means the use of preferred pronouns and names, manner of dress, and using the restroom that best accords with a student’s gender identity, among other things. It does not include medical treatments such as hormone use or surgery.
“I know that some people [think] that social transitioning is bad and all that,” said Committee Chair Iannitelli, trying to explain the reasons for the proposed policy changes. “I myself make a delineation on the social transitioning [which is] … the minute that [a] student asks to use a different bathroom, that's where we let the parents know.”
The problem with Iannitelli’s reasoning is that it’s illegal.
“In 2001 Rhode Island became the second state to include transgender people in it's non-discrimination law applicable to places of public accommodation,” said Attorney Anthony Cottone, Chief Legal Counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), whose legal analysis, presented to the school committee, is crucial to understanding the issue. “That has been construed to include restrooms, and although there's no court case on point, may well include bathrooms in a public school. There's also a statute that generally prohibits every state agency that provides services from discrimination based on various categories - including sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression; and a similar ban is statutorily entitled the Children's Bill of Rights, which prohibits discrimination on that basis.
“The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education passed regulations governing protection for student rights to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
“Those regulations have the force and effect of law. They're not guidance, they're like a statute. The regulations provide that each school district must adopt a policy providing a safe, supportive, and non-discriminatory school environment for transgender and gender non-conforming students. And this is a significant point - that it is consistent with state and national best practices, guidance, and model policies.
“The regulations also provided the Commissioner of Education the authority to promulgate regulations to enforce these statutory requirements. Thus, in June of 2016, then Commissioner Kenneth Wagner issued guidance for Rhode Island schools on transgender and gender nonconforming students.” [Uprise covered the 2018 RIDE discussions to mandate the policy statewide here.]
If Smithfield were to adopt a policy mandating the outing of students who want to use a restroom that matches their gender identity, the Rhode Island ACLU is almost certainly going to take the town to court, a fact not lost on those seeking to challenge the policy as part of a right-wing culture war.
"So here's the bottom line," said South Kingstown resident Nicole Solas, an outspoken "parents' rights" advocate. "Someone will probably sue you. And it's either going to be the Rhode Island ACLU, that wants to make an example out of you to carve out new rights against parental rights, or you will be sued by the parents of a dead child or a severely traumatized child. And the lawsuit you want is the one that's going to let each an every one of you sleep at night."
Solas told the Smithfield School Committee members that if the policy were not changed, it may lead a student to suicide or injury, but in fact, since the adoption of the policy, according to the testimony of students, principals, teachers, social workers, parents and the Smithfield Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dawn Bartz, the policy has protected students and contributed to feelings of safety and community.
"Call the ACLU's bluff and stand up for the health and safety of children and the rights of parents to protect them," said Solas, eager to gamble with the finances of a town she does not live in, before engaging in conspiratorial rhetoric. "Parents are not the enemy of their own children, but they are the enemy of the radical trans cultists who prey upon the vulnerabilities of children to promote their political agenda."
It was the students of Smithfield High School who spoke most beautifully and bravely against changing the policy. I can’t transcribe it all, but here’s a sampling:
“As a resident of Smithfield, as a student at Smithfield High School, I'm honestly very confused why we're here today, as is every other student in this room who attends a Smithfield Public School.
“Let's hear the facts: Since the current policy has been in place, not a single student has reported being threatened by or being sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, raped or harmed in any way in our school bathrooms by a transgender student. These are unfounded fears, so stop governing with fears, govern with facts.
“Look at the fact that of the over 12,000 transgender students who were denied access to the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, 36 percent of them were sexually assaulted in school bathrooms. And that's why Harvard found that 58 percent of transgender teenagers attempt suicide in their high school career. If you pass this policy, you'll bring those numbers to Smithfield and you'll exacerbate them.
“If you're so concerned with parents and parents' involvement, why are you asking them to pick out a coffin for their kids? Frankly, if parents know their kids better than anyone else, then shouldn't we apply the commutative property and shouldn't we say that students know their parents better than anyone else? And if they're not comfortable telling their parents yet, why should we tell them to come out?
“To me, and so many others, this policy change is district sponsored bullying. It tells kids they're illegitimate in their personhood, they're not mature enough in their emotions, and that they're a threat to their fellow students. If another student said that to a transgender kid, it would be considered bullying, yet it's acceptable for the parents of this community and our supposed leaders to say that? That's unacceptable. I'm not sure why we're singling out the transgender community, because we have no other policy on our books that discriminates against a minority community. If this community is the first to be attacked, which community is next to be put under attack?”
“I just graduated from Smithfield last week and I've been in the school system since the sixth grade. I'm 18 now and I realized I was bisexual when I was 13. That was five years ago and that has not changed. When I was 14, somebody in my school told everybody. I was outed to my entire grade. And that was about five years ago when Smithfield was not at the level of tolerance that it is now. The things that people said about me and to me and the harassment that I received almost caused me to drop out of school. Outing is incredibly harmful. When I was 16 and I realized that I used they/them pronouns as well as she/her pronouns, and [that] I didn't fully fit into the gender that I was assigned at birth.
“I was careful with who I told and that was not my parents. My parents are the most supportive people I have ever met, but they are parents. The idea of changing your gender and how you identify is something much newer, and I understood that. I took a full year to educate [my parents], coming as someone who seemed that I was not a part of that community, but knew people in that community, because I wanted to be able to come out to them when I knew they would fully accept me for who I was. I had amazing teachers in the school who respected my pronouns and still made me feel seen day-to-day. I was in school for five days of a seven-day week and I could survive two days at home with parents that didn't know I identified that way because I had friends and I knew I could go back to the school and be met with open arms.
“I think the important conversation here is education. I think the opportunity to educate parents completely on this type of topic will help create the least amount of ignorance. There's a group of students expressing that we don't want this. We have seen this policy for four years in the high school and I can say that from my freshman year to my senior year, Smithfield has become a more accepting place. The high school has done such an amazing job making their LGBTQ plus students feel seen. And I feel so much more safe than I did when I sat in classroom in eighth grade wondering if people were going to call me slurs or were they going to hurt me because someone else told them how I identified?
“This policy [has been] working. I have never had an experience at Smithfield High School with any type of homophobia. I am very open about who I am. I'm open that I am non-binary, I'm open that I'm queer. I have had girlfriends that also go to the school. We have experienced no homophobia. I have heard no slurs be told about me... I have gone through this system as an open, queer, non-binary person. I think this policy has worked for us and made these students feel the most safe they can. we are all here, all of these students to tell you that we want this to stay as it is because this is how we feel safe. And we are the most affected by this policy. Not the parents, the students.”
“I am a student at Smithfield High School. I co-founded the middle school Gender Sexuality Alliance last year and I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, so I'm speaking with that experience in mind. First, I would like to take a moment to thank my teachers and my school staff who make me feel safe. I feel safe in the school. I feel like I can be who I am without worrying about what people are going to do to me, or about being hurt in school because of that. That is because of the relationships that teachers have with their schools. Please don't discredit the hand that schools have in our students' lives. When I have a good day at school, I have a good day at home and when school is freaking me out - I'm stressed about math test - I'm stressed about a math test outside of school too.
“So if I'm stressed about my teachers outing me to my family, if I were worried that my teachers were going to out me to people who don't support me, I'm stressed about that 24/7. [I'm lucky, I have a very supportive family.] I'm 15 years old. I'm thinking about school all the time. But at the end of the day, Smithfield is really, really incredible. Our schools are really, really incredible. And that's because of the teachers.
“So please don't ruin this school for me, because this school is a family. By taking away this trust, you're ruining it for your students, for the people who you choose to protect, your schools, your family, your friends, you're ruining it for everyone.
“I don't want Smithfield, this town that I love, to be following the examples set by Florida and Tennessee, a place where it's unsafe. I'm not illegal. Our community is not illegal. Being gay or trans or part of the queer community is not illegal. So comparing it to drug use and theft is horrific and that language scares me. I've been in the school system for nine years, but if its policy changes for the worse, I don't think I'll be continuing for the next three.”