Published in the January 28, 2016 edition


NORTH READING — A lively and at times contentious debate over accommodating transgender students in the town’s schools took place at the School Committee’s meeting Jan. 19.

The School Committee held the discussion on accommodating transgender students in public facilities after a dozen concerned residents appeared at a school board meeting earlier this month to outline their opposition to the Transgender Protections Bill (HB 1577), which would add public accommodations to an existing transgender protections law for locations outside of schools. The residents also expressed their objections to a letter Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly sent 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.

The bill’s opponents accused Bernard and Daly of “advocating” and “lobbying” local lawmakers to support the bill.

School Committee Chairwoman Janene Imbriano denied these assertions at the outset of last week’s meeting.

“As a School Committee, we do not feel we are lobbying or advocating anything,” said Imbriano. “We here to make sure our schools have a safe environment for all kids.”

While the majority of attendees at the School Committee’s Jan. 4 meeting opposed the Transgender Protections Bill, last week’s meeting had a different mix. Twelve residents who spoke expressed their support for accommodating transgender students and ensuring their safety, which included the parents of three transgender children and a high school senior. Three residents reiterated their opposition to the proposed bill and the school district’s current policy for transgender students.

The debate was mostly civil, but there were some heated exchanges between the opponents and the School Committee.

A spirited debate

Kris Mineau, 10 Mount Vernon St., accused Daly of “testifying in support” of the bill at the State House last October and said the letter Bernard and Daly sent was a form of lobbying.

“That is lobbying,” said Mineau. “I am sorry but there is no other definition for it.”

Bernard said he and Daly were not advocating for the bill’s passage. He said Daly was asked to testify about the district’s experiences working with transgender students. He said the purpose of the letter was to let Jones and Tarr know about the school system’s experiences working with transgender students while the State Legislature considers extending transgender accommodations outside of schools.

Mineau asked the school board if it approved Daly’s testimony and the letter.

“We don’t have to approve it,” said School Committee Vice Chairman Mel Webster. “If the superintendent or the assistant superintendent go to a hearing and say something the School Committee considers outrageous, we have the right to call the superintendent onto the carpet in executive session or public session. You haven’t seen that happen.”

School Committee member Jerry Venezia agreed.

“The primary reason for (Daly) being there was we have prior experience in this particular area,” said Venezia. “The School Committee has not taken a position on HB 1577. It’s a bill that does not deal with the public schools. What is important is how we are handling this situation in the district. That bill is outside the scope of what we are doing here.”

Mineau inquired about the school district’s policy for transgender students using facilities such as bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.

Bernard said school officials work with the family of transgender children to meet each child’s needs.

“We have been working with students and families to make appropriate accommodations consistent with upholding the protections for transgender students under a gender identity classification,” said Bernard.

Venezia concurred with Bernard’s sentiment.

“The answer is if there is a transgender student right now in the district that identifies with a particular gender, that student will be allowed to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with,” said Venezia. “That is the direction we have from the Department of Education and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. I think every situation is different and we are sensitive to the needs of every single student. We are willing to work with everybody to make sure everybody has a level of comfort they are entitled to.”

High school senior Noah Spicer, 13 Swan Pond Rd., read a statement he said was signed by several dozen high school students, which expressed their support for their transgender classmates. He also rejected the opponents’ assertions that school officials have made “all private spaces gender free.”

“The students of North Reading High School accept these statements as personal opinion, but they should in no way be allowed to speak on behalf of those who are affected most directly: The students of the North Reading Public School System,” said Spicer. “(The students’) signatures attest to their opinion that their school experience has in no way, educationally or otherwise, been denigrated or infringed upon by this policy in place. Their beliefs are that transgender students within our community should be granted the full rights and privileges of all other students, which includes bathroom and locker room facilities and that our community shall continue to be one of openness and welcoming to all.”

Webster noted the Office of Civil Rights ruled that the Palatine, Ill.-based Township High School District 211 violated Title IX after that high school prevented a transgender student from using the girls’ locker room. He said the Office of Civil Rights ruled transgender students are allowed to “use bathrooms, locker rooms and showers and any other facilities for the sex in which they identify.”

“This is the law of the land,” said Webster. “We are implementing the law of the land in this school district. We are not making things up as we go along here.”

John Barrette, 2 Dogwood Lane, said took exception to Webster’s statement that the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s regulations are law, by stating they are “not the law.” He accused the school system of “sacrificing the rights of privacy of small children” and said the School Committee was using the meeting as an “indoctrination session.”

Barrette also asked the school board, “how will you guarantee the right to privacy of the children in our public schools in open locker rooms?”

“If the need arises, we will make accommodations to have separate changing facilities in the locker rooms,” said Imbriano.

While Venezia said the school system might need to look into making adjustments for the locker rooms changing areas, he reiterated earlier comments that the school district is complying with current state law and DESE regulations.

“If a transgender student is assuming the sex they are transitioning into, then you can’t discriminate against that person,” said Venezia. “You have to afford them the opportunities to use the facilities used by that particular gender.”

Rich McGowan, 46 Chestnut St., inquired if the school system has had any complaints about transgender students using bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.

Bernard said they did not.

McGowan expressed his support for accommodating transgender students.

“I don’t know the law but I know what is right,” said McGowan. “I know if we cannot provide a safe environment for every student in North Reading, then we have failed as educators. The right approach here is to accommodate these students.”

Michelle Spurr, 38 Park St., said she is the mother of a transgender student.

“My daughter is now my son,” said Spurr. “I am proud of this child for not only who he is today but who he challenges everyone to become. This is not an easy thing to go through. My child identified as a female while growing up and it was something that took me by surprise. But this is not about me and this is not about you. It’s about these children and their lives.”

Trinity Evangelical Church Pastor George Ray said it’s a “tragedy” Massachusetts has “sacrificed the rights of others for the rights of a few.” He also accused the School Committee of “giving up (their) rights to be our lawful representatives.”

“This has nothing to do with civil rights,” said Ray. “It has to do with sacrificing the rights of young children at the altar of social engineering.”

Ray’s comments upset School Committee member Cliff Bowers.

“You are saying its not the law, it is the law,” said Bowers. “We cannot discriminate. We have read the regulations that came from the law and implemented them. I have been on the Policy Subcommittee since I have been on this board and we developed a policy consistent with the law and the regulations. It’s been highly successful. It isn’t a bunch of kids running around in and out of locker rooms of a different sex. That isn’t happening. Our objective has been to treat every child as an individual. We go through all kinds of pains to do that.”

School Committee member Julie Koepke echoed Bowers’ sentiments.

“I feel our administration is doing a phenomenal job balancing all of the needs of our students on a case–by–case basis,” said Koepke. “I have an elementary child as well as a middle school child. I do not have any fears or worries of them being in a bathroom or a locker room with one of their transgender peers. This is what is best for all of our students.”

Mary Ann Thomas, 26 Redmond Ave., said she understands a student transitioning from one gender into another is a difficult situation. However, she said was “really hurt” by some of the attendees’ comments.

“This is a loving and welcoming community regardless of what your beliefs are,” said Thomas. “My daughter just moved back because of the school system. I have three grand daughters who are now in the system. I don’t want their privacy infringed upon. If they feel comfortable, that is fine. If they don’t feel comfortable, I want some accommodations. I don’t think anyone here is bigoted in anyway. We all have our rights and we have the right to express our beliefs.”