Published in the January 7, 2016 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — An unexpected debate over the proposed Transgender Protections Bill, HB 1577, took place during the public input portion of the School Committee’s meeting Monday.
A dozen concerned residents appeared at the school board’s meeting to outline their opposition to the Transgender Protections Bill. The residents came to the School Committee’s meeting after Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly wrote a letter to State Representative Brad Jones (R–North Reading) and State Senator Bruce Tarr (R–Gloucester), which outlined the school system’s experiences working with transgender youth.
Additionally, Daly testified at the State House last October about working with transgender students in the school system and how the district implemented “An Act Relative to Gender Identity” in 2011 and regulations established by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Bernard said Daly informed him that he was approached to testify about the Transgender Protections Bill.
“When (Daly) asked me about accepting the invitation to speak about our experiences here with transgender youth, I felt it was the appropriate decision and I still do,” said Bernard. “It wasn’t lobbying and it wasn’t advocating.”
The residents in attendance expressed their opposition to the bill because of privacy concerns. The residents’ were also upset Bernard and Daly sent the letter to Jones and Tarr.
In the wake of the dozen residents in attendance and the ensuing debate that has occurred in town, the School Committee will be discussing the proposed Transgender Protections Bill on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at the Batchelder School.
School Committee member Jerry Venezia said the Jan. 19 meeting will enable people to weigh in on the proposed bill.
“There are people not in this room who will want to be part of the discussion,” said Venezia.
A lively debate
John Barrette, 2 Dogwood Lane, said he opposes the Transgender Protections Bill because of privacy concerns.
“I strongly oppose this bill,” said Barrette. “While I am concerned about the privacy of transgender students, this bill would destroy the privacy rights of our boys and girls. This bill endangers the privacy and safety of public bathrooms and locker rooms, and would open them up to potential predators who claim they are confused about their sex.”
Barrette said a “better way” to accommodate transgender students is establishing separate bathrooms and locker rooms “specifically for transgender students.”
Venezia, an attorney, also noted transgender rights issues have been “popping up in legal cases all over the country.” He said courts could potentially rule that having separate facilities for transgender students is a form of discrimination.
In response to a question from Barrette about when the state legislature will be voting on the Transgender Protections Bill, School Committee Vice Chairman Mel Webster said “there is no way of knowing.”
Kris Mineau, 10 Mount Vernon Street, raised concerns about the Transgender Protections Bill as well. He also accused Bernard and Daly of advocating for the bill’s passage.
“All of us want modesty, safety and privacy,” said Mineau. “We are concerned about how you would implement such a policy being advocated.”
School Committee Chairwoman Janene Imbriano said the purpose of Bernard and Daly’s letter was to inform Jones and Tarr about the district’s experience working with transgender students.
“The letter discusses the experience we had in North Reading,” said Imbriano.
Bernard concurred with Imbriano’s sentiment.
“I want to be clear, the letter was solely about the experience we have had here in North Reading,” said Bernard. “It was not about championing the cause. (Daly) was asked to speak to the legislature about the experience North Reading has had working with the Department of Education and enacting policies in the schools for transgender youth. He did that and the reason why is when he was the director of academic services, he had a more active role with working with the Department of Education for that purpose.”
Bernard also noted the school system held a public forum with DESE Safe Schools Program Director Jeff Perotti last spring. The Safe Schools program provides training, technical assistance and professional development to school administrators and staff on issues related to gender identity, sexual orientation and school climate.
“We invited them in to work with our Gay Straight Alliance at the high school,” said Bernard. “It was pretty well attended and people walked out of that room enlightened and speaking for myself, I was one of those people. I felt, as both high school principal and superintendent of schools, that I have an obligation and a responsibility to do what I thought was right to protect students in our schools. I am sorry it has been perceived as lobbying or advocating. That was not the position I or Dr. Daly took.”
Bernard continued, “I can look all of you in the eye and say I do believe very strongly that I have a responsibility as the superintendent to do what is necessary to protect our students, and that is where this stems from. I would hope and think all of you in this room would want me to do that.”
Bernard also said he understands people’s concerns about the Transgender Protections Bill and the debate it has generated in town.
“I understand there are privacy concerns and I dealt with that as high school principal,” said Bernard. “We have transgender youth in the high school and when I was high school principal, I worked very closely to manage those types of issues. We have had a very good experience here in North Reading. We have had students be very cooperative and they were not trying to make a statement or were doing things on a whim. Jeff Perrotti has been very good with helping us answer challenging questions and giving teachers the tools they need to work with students who are transitioning in their gender. Without his guidance, I think we would have fumbled a lot more than we have. That is the position we are taking with the letter.”
A man who recently moved to town said he’s concerned about the proposed Transgender Protections Bill.
“I have a daughter who is seven and it really frightens me she could be in the same bathroom as boys,” said the resident. “When you go to the bathroom, that is your private time.”
Webster noted if the Transgender Protections Bill is approved by the state legislature and is signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker, the school system “will have to implement it the best we can.”
“We cannot not implement something the state or federal government tell us we have to implement,” said Webster.
“Yes, you can,” Barrette interjected.
John Penney, 4 Puritan Road, inquired what are the school district’s current bathroom and locker room procedures for transgender students.
Bernard said the school system currently offers accommodations for transgender students. He said a transgender student must go through a process in order to use a facility for which they identify, and students cannot decide to use a bathroom that differs from their gender on a “whim.”
“If a child was born as a female and now identifies as a male, then that student has been afforded the opportunity to use the bathroom of the gender which they identify,” said Bernard. “That has been the case.”
“We had firsthand experience with it and we haven’t had any problems or complaints,” added Venezia. “We dealt with it.”
Venezia urged residents to contact Jones and Tarr to either outline their support or opposition to the Transgender Protections Bill.