Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Ken Wagner seemed to miss Reverend Donald Anderson‘s point regarding the adoption of a state wide policy that would protect transgender and gender non-conforming students in our schools.
“I just want to comment on one of the words that was used and to me it was striking,” said Wagner. “The word was ‘we need to force. We need to force districts to do this.’ You can’t force people to love and sometimes when you force you actually create the very issues that you say you are trying to prevent.”
Anderson, speaking in his role as executive director of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, didn’t say he wanted to force people to love. What he said was, “I want to speak in favor of something you will be considering and that is to take the really fine guidelines that you’ve developed for transgender students and to make those guidelines a requirement, to force schools to adopt a policy that is as rigorous as the guidelines that you have suggested here.”
The exchange happened at Tuesday evening’s Council on Postsecondary Education meeting. In the wake of the ACLU of Rhode Island’s findings that 25 percent of Rhode Island school districts have failed to adopt policies protecting transgender and gender non-conforming students after the Trump Administration withdrew guidance, five people spoke during the public comment period of the meeting in favor of a state wide policy.
“Over 30 percent of districts in Rhode Island still don’t have a policy for students that are transgender and gender non-conforming,” said Marcela Betancur, policy associate at the ACLU of Rhode Island. “The department of education has put together a really good model for policies: privacy, name change, gender pronouns and name preferences. And the fact that there are 30 percent of districts that have hidden behind anti-bullying or anti-discrimination policies rather than taking a stance and responsibly addressing transgender and gender non-conforming students is no longer okay. The way that our Federal Department of Education is handling [the issue of] transgender students, it is up to you, as a council, and the [RI] Department of Education to address this and make sure that our students are safe in their schools [and] that they are respected in their schools.”
Kayla David, a clinician at Family Services Rhode Island who also chairs a board looking at inequalities for LGBTQ youth in Rhode Island’s child welfare system laid out the grim picture of transgender and gender non-forming student health outcomes. “The vast majority of our transgender students surveyed in 2015, as part of a nationwide survey of middle and high school students reported experiencing verbal harassment in school. 20 percent reported physical harassment because of their gender expression and almost ten percent reported being either punched, kicked or injured with a weapon because of their gender expression.
“Many of these students did not report the incident to school officials, stating that they did not believe that the school would be effective in intervening,” continued David. “Of those LGBTQ students that did report and incident to school officials, 63.5 percent reported nothing was done or they were told to ignore it. LGBTQ students continue to report that they feel unsafe in their school environment, with 1/4th nationally reporting that they miss a day of school or more in the past month because thy felt unsafe. They not only report harassment from other students but by staff and faculty as well.
“The negative health outcomes for transgender youth are staggering, with rates of depression, attempted suicide, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse much higher than their cis-gender peers. Transgender and gender non-conforming youth are at a high risk of negative health outcomes not because of their gender identity and expression, but because of the effects of systemic oppression, family rejection and inconsistent support.”
Commissioner Wagner was keen to defend RIDE’s work in this area, even as he acknowledged that the work is incomplete.
“We’ve been very consistent and very clear that there is absolutely no room for hate or bigotry of any kind in our schools and when the Trump Administration rescinded its prior guidance we came out, literally within one to two days, to reflect that we had an opportunity to step up and lead in Rhode Island and we would lead in such a way that all those protections would remain in place,” he said. “The goal of course is for all students, including transgender/gender non-conforming students, which, I agree, the data are very troubling and compelling, experience bullying and physical intimidation at a rate that’s unprecedented compared to other student’s experiences. They need to have the strongest protections.”
Despite that the large number of instances of abuse perpetrated against transgender and gender non-conforming youth goes unreported, Wagner said, “RIDE has an absolute obligation to look at any and all instances of inappropriate treatment of students that are reported to us. We have not received a single complaint either in the communities that have adopted such policies or in the communities that have not yet adopted such policies. And if there were any complaints we would, of course, bring our full force and authority to resolve those issues as quickly as possible.”
Wagner turned the ACLU of Rhode Island’s report on it head, saying, “I think that there’s perspective on this. We introduced our model policy less than a year ago. The emphasis has been that roughly 25 percent of the schools either have not or are not in the process of adopting a policy in this space. The other way to look at it is that 75 percent of our districts in our state have, in less than a year, adopted policies that are protecting students in this space.
As Wagner continued to speak he seemed to be more concerned with avoiding potential conflicts than with instituting a statewide policy that would immediately protect all transgender and gender non-conforming students.
“Those 75 percent of our communities [that have instituted policies] have done so in a way that, to my knowledge, has avoided the intense conflict, the intense vilification that has occurred in other communities that have gone through a similar process,” said Wagner, seemingly implying that the communities that have not yet adopted policies protecting transgender and gender non-conforming youth may be facing the potential for ugliness from residents.
When questioned by board member Marta V Martínez about his comments, Wagner added, “If you follow this debate, and it truly is an ugly debate across the country, not just in the courts but school houses across the country, we have so far avoided all of that; that really ugly negativity. At the community level, I’m not saying there have not been ugly instances, but at the community level, people coming out and fighting over this, we have avoided that in a way that we have also been moving forward. We have not been ducking this issue, but so far we have avoided the vicious fights. And the question before us is: Can we continue to make progress, while avoiding the vicious fights, or do we have to take other steps?”
In at least one of the districts that has yet to adopt a policy, a transgender student is not having a difficult time. Still, Beth Capron, the proud parent of a 16-year-old transgender son, would like to see a statewide policy implemented. Capron’s son, “had an extremely positive experience in our school system. Our school system still does not have a formal policy. I believe that all students have a right to be able to have a positive experience. This way they can learn. They can have fulfilling educations, but they don’t need to feel any type of discrimination, or hate or any fear. Speaking in her capacity as a professional that works in child welfare, Capron added, “there are trans students that are foster children and they deserve, also, the right to be able to have a policy that protects them as well.”
Alexander Hoffman, a transgender Rhode Island resident wanted to speak “more towards the personal aspect of” the issue.
“I started transitioning about ten years ago,” said Hoffman. “There weren’t policies, it wasn’t really talked about. As a student it was really difficult to navigate my education not being able to use the restroom of my gender identity, not being able to change my preferred name on school documents [and] not being able to change my preferred gender. So I think that the policy that you crafted is amazing. It’s great. It will do amazing things for the students in the State of Rhode Island.
“I think it’s important that [the policy] be unified across all school districts,” continued Hoffman. “A student in Providence should have the same access to a quality education that a student in Chariho has. For trans students there’s a discrepancy right now between school districts that have enacted a policy and school districts that haven’t. With your leadership we have a chance to be a model for other states in this country to protect trans students, especially given the political climate nationally.”
“We’re educators,” said Wagner near the end of the discussion. “Part of this challenge is we have to teach people what are the challenges and opportunities that come with these sets of issues. So I believe we’re all teachers at heart and I believe that our guidance teaches… and now we just have a decision point. Of those communities, and the list, it’s roughly nine communities that don’t have anything in action right now, at least according to the ACLU’s very thorough analysis, of those nine communities, do we believe that they are so disconnected from where we want them to be that we need to step in and compel or do we believe that we can get them where they need to be in a way that builds up local support?”
Here’s the video, starting with Commissioner Wagner, who delivered his comments after public comment was over.
Reverend Donald Anderson of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
Marcela Betancur, policy associate at the ACLU of Rhode Island
Adoption Rhode Island‘s Beth Capron.
“I’m a transgender individual in the State or Rhode Island so I wanted to speak more towards the personal
Kayla David is a clinician at Family Services Rhode Island and chairs a board looking at inequalities for LGBTQ youth in Rhode Island’s child welfare system.