Smithfield School Committee considering policy to out LGBTQ students to parents

The Smithfield School Committee’s recent discussion about their policy on transgender, gender nonconforming, and transitioning students has raised serious concerns. The proposed changes may go against best practices recommended by Rhode Island’s Department of Education and possibly state and federal laws. The Committee Chair, Vice-Chair, and a Committeemember, all Republicans, insisted they were only trying to align the policy with their beliefs on parental rights, but their statements revealed a lack of understanding about the issues and a clear right-wing ideological bias.

Rhode Island News: Smithfield School Committee considering policy to out LGBTQ students to parents

April 18, 2023, 4:26 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

The Smithfield School Committee’s recent discussion about their policy on transgender, gender nonconforming, and transitioning students raised serious concerns. Item 14 on the agenda, a first reading of the policy, did not make it clear that the proposed changes may go against best practices recommended by Rhode Island’s Department of Education and possibly state and federal laws. The recently elected Committee Chair Richard Iannitelli, Vice-Chair Jessica Sala, and Committeemember Amanda Fafard, all Republicans, insisted that they were only trying to align the policy with their beliefs on parental rights. They claimed they did not intend to hurt these students. However, their statements, the so-called “facts” they cited, and the language they used revealed a lack of understanding about the issues at hand, as well as a clear right-wing ideological bias.

Smithfield School Committee considers weakening trans student policy

In a discussion that lasted over an hour, the Smithfield School Committee discussed proposed changes to the Policy that the public had little access to. This is because Smithfield Schools Superintendent Dawn Bartz would only allow access to the revised policy upon request, and allowed no copies to be made for the public. In a room where over 50 members of the public expressed an interest in the policy changes being discussed, few had actually seen what the changes were, a terrible breach of the spirit of the Open Meetings Act, if not the law itself. [Proposed changes to the Open Meetings Act would disallow bodies from publicly discussing documents not released to the public. See here.] [After the meeting, Uprise RI approached the Smithfield School Committee’ legal council, Sean Clough, and asked about why the policy revisions were not made public before the meeting. Clough told Uprise RI to make an Access to Public Records Act [APRA] request to the Superintendent for a copy of the document if we were interested in seeing it, a process that can take two weeks. Clough shrugged when Uprise RI asked him if he thought the public had a right to the information being discussed by the School Committee.]

How these revisions to the Policy came to be is a bit of a mystery. The issue was raised during a March 20th meeting of the School Committee, where, according to Committeemember Benjamin Caisse [Democrat], there was no discussion of any Policy change, and no requests were made for revised Policy language. The issue was not discussed during the April 3rd meeting, but now the revised policy was before the Committee for a first reading.

Chair Iannitelli insisted that the policy changes are in response to capitol expenditures related to redoing the bathrooms in the schools. Chair Iannitelli said that he had asked Attorney Clough to provide new language. But, as we will see, the new language has little to do with capital expenditures for new bathrooms and everything to do with who can use what bathrooms under what circumstances, and the mandatory notification of parents about which students are using certain bathrooms.

“I still feel, very strongly, that there should be no difference between the secondary school students and the elementary school students when we talk about parental involvement,” said Vice-Chair Sala. “We involve parents for everything. I can’t give my son a Tylenol, it can’t be in his pocket. He can’t go on a field trip, he can’t do anything [without parental involvement] yet we drastically change our approach [in this Policy] and I don’t understand why we’re doing that. All of these children are minors.” Vice-Chair Sala went on to say that final decisions regarding the policy fall to Superintendent Bartz, “which then puts [the Superintendent] in a place of involvement, where [she’s] deciding if a parent should be notified or not, and I just don’t feel that the district should have that authority.”

Superintendent Bartz said that while partnering with families is always the ideal, “there are certain times and certain cases – which is why [the Policy says] ‘on a case-by-case basis’ – where, as it references in the Policy, there may be a danger to the student.” She added that such decisions are not made by the Superintendent alone. There are team meetings and discussions held to determine if there is a safety issue with notifying the parents.

As for the differences in policy for elementary and secondary school students, Superintendent Bartz noted that there are differences in their developmental levels and, “certainly, as students get older, in middle school and high school, they are starting to make more and more decisions [about] their identity…” Superintendent Bartz added that the difference in policy does not negate “in any case, parental involvement.”

Vice-Chair Sala maintained that there should be no differences between the policies for elementary and secondary students, and that if there was indeed a danger to students in disclosing this information to parents, the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) should be notified.

Committeemember Amanda Fafard agreed that the policies should be the same for all students, regardless of age, and stressed that no matter where you stand on this issue, everyone wants students to feel safe.

“I don’t feel that the school district should take away any parental right, and I feel like we don’t have enough mental health resources right now for parents to stop back,” said Committeemeber Fafard in what began a somewhat indecipherable word salad. “If we step back as parents, [then] Monday through Friday [the student is] supported and then they go home, Saturday, Sunday and nights they’re not supported. Then what happens? I want every child to feel safe. When they walk in the door, everybody, regardless of race, religion, everything, should feel safe but it’s also, it could be also be that a parent’s cultural views are being taken away from them. Who are we to say family belief – That’s like saying a family that celebrates Ramadan, they’re child can’t eat but now teachers are stepping in and saying ‘we believe you should eat but it’s against your religion, so no.’ I have a problem with that secondary school student [policy?]…”

[Note: Traditionally, Muslim children are not expected to fast during Ramadan until they reach puberty, but some children express an interest in fasting and want to participate, which is allowed. See here.]

Superintendent Bartz noted that the Policy for secondary students expressly states that the “desire is for parents to be kept informed about their children” but “if the administration determines that notifying the family carries risk, it should work closely with the student and the family will be involved in the process, considering the age, health and safety of the student.”

The actual text of the existing policy reads “If the administration determines that notifying the family carries risks for the student, it should work closely with the student to assess the degree to which, if any, the family will be involved in the process and must consider the age, health, well-being and safety of the student.” [emphasis added]

Vide-Chair Sala objects to the words, “if any.”

“That ‘if any’ says, right there, that your assessing the degree [to which parents] should be involved,” said Vice-Chair Sala. “And that right there is where it becomes problematic.”

Committemember Benjamin Caisse pointed out that in addition to the Policy, “we also have federal law and constitutional law that protects student’s rights, as they grow older they have more rights to make decisions for themselves. The current policy that we have is well-informed. It’s based on guidance [from the Rhode Island Department of Education], which takes into account case law and things like that…

“We all agree that we want a safe and supportive environment. We may disagree on how to get there, but that’s ultimately the goal,” said Committeemember Caisse. “Some students may not want to tell their parents because they are not sure how to articulate that yet, and we have trained staff that can work with our students… and help them figure out how to communicate, but at the same time we have students who know that possibly telling their parents at home is going to create an issue…

“We need to respect the student’s confidentiality and ensure that they have the safest, supportive environment and I think if we put language in there mandating reporting – I think that’s actually not allowed by federal law – but it eliminates school as a safe place. It doesn’t allow that student and opportunity to figure out how to communicate with their parents when they ultimately want to, but it also makes them internalize the struggle when they can’t speak to anyone. And I’m fearful of the mental health issues they might develop if they can’t actually communicate with someone outside their family.”

After explaining the process of dealing with a transgender student dealing with the fear of their parents finding out, Superintendent Bartz, said, “I think we’re erring on communicating with the parent. We’re only talking about those very, very rare instances where the student has expressed that their safety may be in jeopardy.”

“That sounds like we’re working the the student to start a transition plan without confirming that a parent is aware,” said Vice-Chair Sala. “What transparency are we giving to parents if there’s, let’s say, a third grade transgender student who’s using a bathroom of the opposite sex?’ Are the students’ parents aware of that situation, that they may be able to request a special accommodation if they like?”

Attorney Clough clarified that not only is such notification not happening, but that he doesn’t believe it would be proper to do so.

To clarify, what Vice-Chair Sala was asking is whether parents of students who are not transgender are informed that a transgender child is using a gender appropriate restroom, in case that parent would want to get a special accommodation for their child to avoid having to share a bathroom with the transgender child. Essentially, Vice-Chair Sala is asking if the school has a policy of accommodating anti-transgender bigots.

“I’m trying to understand,” sad Committeemember Caisse. “Are you asking like, will the school send an email notifying parents that now we have a transgender student using a [certain] bathroom? Absolutely we can’t do that. That’s a violation of their rights and confidentiality. There’s no way we can do that.”

“You understand the concern, from what I’m saying,” said Vice-Chair Sala. “This interferes in the private area…a bathroom. This gets drastically different.”

“In terms of releasing that information, no, that would not happen,” said Attorney Clough.

“Because it’s not allowed by law,” said Vice-Chair Sala.

“Correct,” said Attorney Clough. “There’s federal privacy laws under education that wouldn’t allow us to do that.”

Under the policy, if a bigoted parent or student were uncomfortable that a transgender student may possibly be using a certain bathroom, they could avail themselves of a single use bathroom under the existing school policy, but they have no right to know for sure that such a thing is happening.

Chair Iannitelli still didn’t get it.

“I think what [the Vice-Chair] is saying, is, ‘Parent, we have a student using Bathroom X on the main corridor that’s transgender.’ That’s all,” said Chair Iannitelli.

People in the audience were vocally exasperated. “It’s wrong!” said a woman.

Attorney Clough repeated that such a notification would be illegal.

“So there’s no way that a parent will know, end of story. So that is useless language,” said Chair Iannitelli.

“My other questions come back to the bathrooms again,” said Vice Chair Sala. “If we are allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that does not align with their biological gender, are we also allowing male or female students to – because if we’re not discriminating based on transgender, because I assume that’s the root of this, because we can’t tell a transgender individual that they have to use a specific bathroom – we have to give them bathroom choice.

“So why wouldn’t we give every student bathroom choice?” continued Vice-Chair Sala. “If were going to allow a transgender student to pick a bathroom, then we need to let every boy and every girl pick whatever bathroom they would want to. We can’t discriminate based on sex, right?”

“The law is intended to prevent discrimination based on gender identity,” noted Attorney Clough, “not to simply pick the bathroom of their choice.”

“I’m not going to disagree that that’s how it’s written in the law, but I am going to disagree that that’s what’s appropriate for our students,” said Vice-Chair Sala. “And I understand that we may receive ‘guidance’ from the Rhode Island Department of Education, but it is just that. When I was sworn in, I wasn’t sworn in on an oath of how to best adhere to RIDE guidance. I was sworn in on how to make sure that we are providing the best education and safety for our students.”

All but two of the people testifying before the School Committee were in support of the Policy as it exists right now, without the changes put forward by Chair Iannitelli and Vice-Chair Sala.

“I must really stress to all of you that you need to be careful with your language,” said Katie Roderick. “Because you made it sound like [transgender students] were ‘at risk’ or ‘in distress’ but they might not be. They might be very happy with what they’re going through and their decision to change. And our job is to support them.

“I want to make sure that going forward we offer more support rather than less support,” said Lisa Gerard, who helps facilitate the GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] at Vincent J. Gallagher Middle School. “I have seen a lot of fear in students at GSA. Specifically they’re afraid of their parents finding out about certain aspects of their lives.”

“You stated that you’re having a hard time understanding this [Policy] but if you Google it for five minutes there’s a wealth of information online about suicide rates, about the trauma these kids are facing, and one out of three [transgender students], on a good day, is getting support at home,” said Stephanie Howell. “So if you’re saying that the needs of the parents is more important than the needs of the students, then you shouldn’t be sitting in those chairs. The students need to be your top priority, not the voters.

“And I’m so outraged that you’re perpetuating this myth that transgender students are somehow a risk to the other students or that people who are afraid of transgender students are somehow justified in their beliefs. It’s absolutely nauseating to me… This is utter nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense. I can’t believe we need to have this discussion. I don’t know what you think transgender kids are doing in the bathroom other than using it for its intended purpose… Just knock it off.”

“I’m beyond appalled by what I was hearing tonight as it relates to the complete opposite of creating a safe and supportive and inclusive environment for all kids,” said Jess Mencunas. “I would think that if you are holding a seat on this committee that whatever you put forth would be researched based, data based, vetted, done with statistical analysis, spoken with families that are directly impacted, spoken with maybe the American Academy of Pediatrics, Youth Pride or other reputable organizations.

“I certainly have done my research and Googled plenty,” responded Vice-Chair Sala. “And what a lot of the results show is that 80 percent of people who transition, under the age of 18, reverse transition in adulthood. This is where a lot of my concerns come in about the age and where they’re making these decisions and what the parental involvement is. I can’t get away from the fact that we don’t allow decisions to be made for anything else.”

Vice-Chair Sala was grossly misinformed. In the US, a National Center for Transgender Equality survey of nearly 28,000 people found that 8% of respondents reported some kind of detransition. Of this 8%, well over half did so temporarily due to societal, financial, or family pressures.

“The comments that were made earlier about mental health,” continued Vice-Chair Sala. “Anyone who is born with one part and identifies as somebody else – I’m not discrediting how they feel, that they’re identifying or anything like that – but anyone who’s in that situation would benefit from mental health. I think probably anyone in this room would benefit from mental health. What I’m saying is take away that stigma behind mental health.”

“You’re telling me that if they change their pronouns, if they change the name they go by… we’re going to now call DCYF or call their parents because of it, that’s going to be an issue,” said Dorothy Chin Gerding.

Christopher Bilotti and Brian Curtin spoke in favor of Vice-Chair Sala’s positions.

“At the school, we never tell students not to tell their parents. Absolutely, we always want the families to be involved,” said Tanna Marchetti, a teacher and GSA advisor. “But we know from research that LGBTQ youth are at less of a risk from suicide if they have even one accepting adult in their life. By making it so they have to come out to their family, even if they know they will not be accepted, even if they know they won’t be safe, it’s going to make them not do it. They are not going to feel safe coming out to the school, and then they have no chance at having that supportive adult.”

Freshmen High School students Kaya Daphne and Kyle Alberg approached the podium together.

“The statistic that 80% of trans children go on to detransition is a new statistic to me, because after Googling it I found that those rates are between one and ten percent detransistioning,” said Daphne. “And also, how many of those people who detransition don’t do it because they regret their transitions but because they don’t feel safe in their schools, in their workspace, around their families? How much of that I born out of fear?

“The idea that trans kids are going to transition to use other bathrooms is a little bit ridiculous to me,” continued Daphne. “I like to know the stats on that. In how many instances has that happened?…We know that queer kids are at a higher risk of bullying by their peers. Why would they go out, transition, just to get in the girl’s locker room?”

“We have a lot of transitioning students,” said Kyle Ahlberg. “It’s not one or two, it’s more like 10 or 15 and I’m friends with a lot of them. They are not comfortable with the bathrooms they have to go in… I think we’re not understanding the definitions of sex and gender. Gender is just a societal construct, while sex is our body parts and our X and Y chromosomes. It doesn’t make sense that we’re focusing on what’s inside of our bodies and not what we’re comfortable with.”

“I am fully confident that the students are very accepting here in Smithfield High,” said Committee Chair Iannitelli. “I also know that while they will be accepting of different things they still don’t want a person of the opposite sex in their bathroom. It’s basic bodily function. I’ve been told by students, and I’ve been told by their parents who say, ‘My kid will never tell you this, but.’ It’s a basic thing that they want to feel comfortable…

“In my world, what I would see happening, is that some bathrooms are traditional male and female bathrooms. Some bathrooms, for lack of a better term, are mixed bathrooms. And the some would be unisex, would probably be single unit bathrooms… And in that world, these students could essentially choose their bathroom…

“I also think it’s unrealistic to think that K-5 parents or students are going to have any idea as to who’s going in their bathroom or not going in their bathroom – they’re not going to be able to say, ‘I really don’t want to be in a bathroom with so-and-so” – until it’s too late. So that’s the bathroom issue.”

Chair Iannitelli added that the School Committee can’t just focus on LGBTQ students, but must focus on the A to Z students.

“Regarding the issue of parental involvement, I don’t mind that language [but] I don’t like the words ‘if any.’ I think you let the parents know, period,” said Chair Iannitelli. “Different people accept things to different degrees…”

“What you’re advocating for, mandatory disclosure, has a name,” said Committeemember Caisse. “It’s called “outing”. The students have confidentiality rights. We’d be violating federal law. On top of that, all of the conversations we’ve had, starting back to March 20th to today, we’re setting an underlying tone, sending an underlying message to an entire group of our students that there’s something wrong with them, they’re less than.

“I support leaving that ‘if any’ language in,” said Henry Siravo, the High School Student Representative on the Smithfield School Committee. “I think that if you remove that language, if you state that there are no caveats, you always have to tell parents, then you are going to tear the fabric that many teachers and students built… You’re going to erode the trust that many students have built with teachers by saying that 100% of the time, if you come to me with a secret, a deep secret, such as transitioning, such as being gay, I have to out you, and it doesn’t matter what the repercussions at home will be.

“But secondly, while we’re talking about bathrooms and comfortability, I’d just like to say that I have a boyfriend, and I think that if you put out a poll across the school, you get students, not a lot, but a number of students who say they don’t feel comfortable using the boys room with a gay boy. So should I not be able to use the bathroom because some students are not comfortable with me? Or send an email that says X number of students are gay and using the bathrooms?”

A change in policy that forces the outing of transgender students to their parents, said Siravo, may ruin the high school experiences of LGBTQ students and may isolate them from their friends and community.

Chair Iannitelli promised to bring the revisions of the Policy back for a future meeting. The fifth member of the Smithfield School Committee, Anthony Torregrossa [Democrat], was silent throughout the discussion.