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RIDE weighs emotional testimony on transgender and gender nonconforming student policy proposal



Sherry Jones

Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Doctor Ken Wagner heard emotional and moving testimony in favor of a proposed rule to require all school districts in the state to adopt policies in line with the RIDE guidance on transgender and gender non-conforming students. Transgender and student advocates spoke about the importance of protecting a vulnerable population that is at risk of bullying and assault from fellow students, teachers and school staff without such a policy.

Also heard was testimony against adopting the rule, from conservative religious leaders and parents.

The very first speaker, Doctor Michelle Forcier, a primary care pediatrician serving over 500 “gender diverse and gender fabulous” persons in the Rhode Island area, outlined the need for the policy in no uncertain terms.

“There is strong support in the medical, psychiatric and social work literature that kids who are supported as their authentic selves thrive,” said Forcier.

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“When we reject and discriminate against kids because of who they are, whether it’s gender or sexual minority status, they suffer. Our LGBT and trans kids suffer the most due to discrimination and in terms of bullying, harassment and safety issues at school.”

Transgender and gender nonconforming students are at much greater risk in terms of suicide, HIV, depression, anxiety, socioeconomic status and more noted Forcier.

Further, says Forcier, “There’s no evidence that [that the presence of transgender and gender nonconforming students in schools] in a diverse population of kids affects other, cisgender or other youth adversely.”

Justice Gaines is an organizer with Rhode Island Jobs With Justice and a transgender woman of color. Justice knew that xe was a girl from a very young age but it was only after high school that xe could acknowledge that part of xyr identity. “I spent my education denying who I was instead of building who I wanted to become. It wasn’t the right of any school system, or any teacher, or any parent, including my own, to take those years away from me. But it was the responsibility of all of them to help me grow.

“It is RIDE’s responsibility to help students learn and grow into who they are. If a student isn’t allowed to be their whole self only because that doesn’t fit into someone else’s expectations, then I will tell you from experience that the student’s growth and their learning and their life will be stifled, and you will have failed them. Being transgender is not a choice or a politic or a debate. It is part of who someone is.”

Sherry Jones is the mother of a nine-year-old transgender child who has been bullied and sexually assaulted in school. Her testimony pointed to the need for strong policies that protect children.

The Rhode Island public school system, said Jones, “has not been accepting and welcoming to my daughter. Since kindergarten students harassed my daughter by calling her horrible names… Though we reported this to teachers, school administrators did very little to help my child. Instead, my daughter was repeatedly disciplined for defending herself against her harassers or excessively punished for conduct other students were not punished for.

“The unaddressed harassment escalated to physical abuse and students started to trip her, push her on the ground and hit her with pencils and erasers. In May of 2015, one of my daughter’s primary harassers sexually assaulted her…”

Those testifying against the policy cited concerns that their children would be taught that being transgender and gender nonconforming was okay. They feared that their religious teaching at home would be undermined. Some feared that their children would receive medical procedures without their consent. Some even denied the existence of transgender and gender nonconforming students, implying that the condition was mental illness.

After the hearing, Commissioner Wagner held a round table discussion with those who wished to discuss the policy in a less formal setting. This allowed those in favor of the policy and those opposed to directly talk about misconceptions and fears. The idea, for instance, that students would be assisted in medically transitioning without the consent of parents was soundly debunked.

You can see the proposed rule here.

Here is the original guidance on transgender and gender nonconforming students.

RIDE will be accepting written testimony on the proposed rule until Febraury 16, 2018.

Below is the testimony of all 29 people who provided testimony. I’ve placed the opening words of Commissioner Wagner at the end.


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