Editorial

Medical doctor brings alarming truths about trans youth to Smithfield School Committee

But will it matter? Despite having a model policy in place, the Republican-led Smithfield School Committee continues to push for changes that will require the outing of trans students to their parents.

May 16, 2023, 11:18 am

By Uprise RI Staff

Monday night’s meeting of the Smithfield School Committee began with an announcement regarding proposed changes to the Smithfield School Department‘s Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Transitioning Students Policy. During the April 17th meeting of the Smithfield School Committee, Vice-Chair Jessica Sala, a recently elected Republican, proposed changes to the policy mandating the outing of trans, non-binary and gender questioning students to their parents. Current policy, written by the Rhode Island Department of Education, takes into account the physical, emotional and psychological safety of the student and gives school administrators latitude around informing parents.

These anti-trans policies are often framed as “parents rights” bills, but that rhetoric is the product of right-wing, christo-fascist organizations attempting to shape policy “based on their theological and conservative beliefs around sex, gender and family.”

The proposed policy changes were not on the Monday night’s agenda, but were very much in mind. Smithfield School Committee Chair Richard Iannitelli announced, near the beginning of the meeting, that the School Committee would be hosting a “focused community workshop” scheduled for Saturday, June 17th, from 9am to 1pm, to take place at Smithfield High School.

Special Meeting Announcement:

“Before we begin the regular thing I just want to let you know that the School Committee is working to expand the opportunity for members in our community to share their valuable input as we consider an amendment to the Smithfield School Department’s Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Transitioning Students Policy,” said Chair Iannitelli towards the beginning of the regular meeting on Monday evening.

“As elected officials we believe it is essential to listen to the voices of our students and community members. We thank all those who have shared their insights with us. This helps ensure that our policies reflect the needs and concerns of all members of our community.

“We’ll be hosting a focused community workshop Saturday, June 17th from 9am to 1pm right here at Smithfield High School. The workshop will include facilitated discussion from topic experts and opportunities for students, families and community members to provide specific input and feedback on this policy. This will allow the issues and points of view to be more clearly stated.

“Our School Committee will use this workshop to consider any amendments to the policy which will then follow our school committee’s public meeting process. We are even hopeful that this open process will engage and unite our community as we work to support all our students.

“So tonight, [the policy] is not on the agenda, in case anybody is wondering.”

The policy not being on the agenda did not stop three people from bringing the issue up during public comment. The comments of student Rocco Savastano and Dr. Will Giordano-Perez were especially revealing. Below is the video and transcripts:

Rocco Savastano; Smithfield High School Sophomore:

“I’m here to talk about a couple of the problems that have been plaguing our school system as of late, mainly Mrs. Jester’s recent termination and the transgender regulations that certain people on the school board are attempting to pass. Both of these situations were fueled by uninformed individuals…

[The part of Savastano’s statement regarding the firing of the teacher is in the video, but not transcribed here.]

“…The next topic is transgender rights. The words I’ve heard in the school and even by the people in this room are absolutely deplorable and straight up malign. It’s obvious that many people are trying to talk about a topic they know nothing about and this should not be done by anyone, especially parents and people who hold positions of power.

“For a second, imagine you yourself are trans and your parents are extremely against transgender people. You, having no other adult in your life, talk to one of the teachers and talk about how horrible you feel. If this policy is passed, it would be against school policy for the teacher to keep the secret from the parents, and now your parents know you’re trans.

“This can lead to numerous occurrences such as being verbally and physically abused or even kicked out. This greatly increases the amount of trans people getting depressed and the amount of trans people committing suicide.

“I also disagree with the people who are trying to take the middle route. I understand these people think they’re taking the high road, however, they can also contribute to the problem. Saying something like, “respect everyone’s opinions” just doesn’t make sense when it comes to human rights. If opinion A is that trans people should be cared for, and opinion B is that trans people should die, why should I ever have to respect opinion B? In this scenario taking the high road is actually a sign of being uninformed on a topic.

“I have put my true emotions into what I have said today. Nothing I said has been a lie I falsely believe. I know this speech is very direct and emotional. However, this is the only way I understand how to get my messages through everyone.”

Peter Lawrence; Smithfield resident and parent, speaking on behalf of himself and his spouse, Tammy:

“As a parent I want to convey that I am for parents rights, transparency and involvement [in] our children’s needs and concerns in their educational material. There is a majority of parents that are also for this. Parents and families are not in any way making a judgement on any child regarding preferences or lifestyles. This is just about having parents involved in decisions of their children’s future.”

Dr. Will Giordano-Perez; Chief Medical Officer at Tri-County Community Action Agency [emphasis added]:

“I’m not a resident of Smithfield. I’m a physician and I work out of the Tri-County Health Centers where I’m the Chief Medical officer. Within our treatment area is Smithfield so many of my patients are students here. Many parents here see me as their primary care provider as well. I’m also an assistant clinical professor at the Brown Medical School.

“I’m an expert in LGBTQ health in particular and I’m a communications consultant for about a dozen local schools within Rhode Island hospitals and healthcare settings. I was informed of the new transgender policy with concern around informing parents of a student’s identity, primarily around their gender. It grabbed my attention and I wanted to make sure I came here today to just speak a few words that could hopefully be enlightening or helpful.

“I’ve never once been to one of these school committee meetings before. And I must say that they are incredibly thoughtful and inspiring and I’ve really enjoyed it already, just in the last hour.

“I’m a family medicine doctor by training so I take care of entire families, deliver babies. I take care of children, adults, and older adults as well. Many of my patients are LGBTQ identifying. It’s actually one of the primary reasons people will seek me out for primary care. In Rhode Island, we don’t have many primary care providers who offer that care. We’re comfortable talking to individuals about their sexual orientation or about their gender identity, which means that I have people from all over the state and from Massachusetts and Connecticut who come to find me, sometimes traveling a couple of hours.

“Some of your staff here have invited me here [in the past]. I recognized when I drove up here that I’ve actually given a presentation here on gender identity and sexual orientation, but I believe it was the middle school population. Which was just lovely because there aren’t too many school districts that will put that forward.

“I’m here to mostly express the concern, around this discussion, about outing students to their parents when it comes to their gender identity. I want to express why that’s a concern for me. As a physician I have access to very intimate conversations and information with patients, children themselves, their families, their support systems, and those involved in all of that care. The conversations we have are really intimate and really personal and I think it would be helpful for you to hear some of that.

“I’ve cared for children here in Rhode Island who’ve been kicked out of their homes because of how they identify. In fact, 40% of our homeless youth in Rhode Island identify as LGBTQ, despite making up only 7% of the population in Rhode Island. I’ve cared for children who’ve been harassed, beaten, and verbally and emotionally tormented by those closest to them all because of how they identify.

Nine out of ten LGBTQ youth have experienced harassment or discrimination just within the past year. Those who experience discrimination and harassment are much more likely to miss school and or drop out compared to those who do not. More than one in three LGBTQ youth reported that they have been physically threatened or harmed due to their identity – within the last year. I’ve also cared for children whose families and identities have unfortunately left them to feel quite alone in the world – in a world in which we do not honor their privacy and their rights the same way we honor those of others who are in the majority.

92% of LGBTQ youth stated that they hear negative messages about what it means to be LGBTQ. And worst of all, in my seven years practicing as a primary care physician in Rhode Island, I’ve cared for children who unfortunately decided that it was better to end their lives than to continue living. 40% of LGBTQ youth make that same decision to end their lives compared to just 12% of the general population. All of this to say that our identities are deeply, deeply personal, they need to be honored and they need to be respected.

“These statistics demonstrate the severity of discrimination and harassment that LGBTQ youth face in schools, in their homes, in their communities, in their daily lives. They also highlight the urgent need for creating safe and affirming environments for LGBTQ students, [and] I know this school district is capable of [this] and has proven they’ve done in the past.

“As a physician expert in the field, I would be remiss to not emphasize the importance of creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students and the dangers of outing these students to their parents without their consent. It is important to note that outing a student to their parents can put the student in danger and cause serious harm. It’s crucial to provide privacy and confidentiality for our LGBTQ students. This means ensuring that students’ gender identities and sexual orientations are kept confidential and that they are not forced to disclose this information unless they choose to do so.

“If a student is outed without consent, it can put them at risk of physical, emotional, and psychological harm, including rejection, abuse, and even homelessness. Thank you for allowing me to come tonight and share a few of these thoughts. It means a great deal to me and I hope it will be helpful in putting together whatever your final recommendations are for your school district policy. Together we can do better and we can all do better when we feel we are safe and supported.”

See previous reporting here:

The Smithfield School Committee:

  • Committee Chair Richard Iannitelli
  • Vice-Chair Jessica Sala
  • Committeemember Amanda Fafard
  • Committeemember Benjamin Caisse
  • Committeemember Anthony Torregrossa