School board: Transgender policy about more than graduation gowns

School board: Transgender policy about more than graduation gowns

WOONSOCKET – A new transgender student policy approved by the Woonsocket School Committee last week addressed everything from bathroom use to participation in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, but for many residents, one topic stood out above the rest.

The policy’s approach to graduation gowns drew opposition when the committee initially considered changing to a single-color maroon gown with white accents for all Woonsocket High School graduates. The change, which had previously been considered by WHS administrators and only later became part of the transgender policy, would have been a departure from a longstanding WHS tradition of male students wearing maroon and female students wearing white on graduation day.

Though the change comprised one line in what was then a 24-page policy, it drew strong opposition from some parents and community members when the committee first considered it on April 24. Paul Bourget, chairman of the School Committee, said he was approached by several people who questioned why the committee would eliminate the traditional two-color graduation wear.

“It was widespread. I mean, young and old alike,” he said. “Students, parents, teachers, community members were up in arms as to why are you changing this great tradition.”

In response, the committee elected to table the policy and reconsider the graduation gowns during a subcommittee meeting the following week. During the meeting, held May 2, the policy subcommittee voted 6-2 to keep both colors of graduation gowns but give students the choice of maroon or white, a compromise many saw as a middle ground between tradition and the spirit of the new policy.

“I think we tried to listen. Hopefully we listened well. Hopefully we listened in the right way for people to sort of understand this particular policy,” said School Committee member Donald Burke, a member of the policy subcommittee.

Though the compromise seemed to quell community fears, with no residents speaking out when the new policy passed by a 5-0 vote last week, some committee members expressed disappointment that involvement had been mostly limited to one detail of the policy. Lynn Kapiskas, chairwoman of the policy subcommittee, said the pushback had “boiled down” a comprehensive policy into one sentence on graduation attire.

“That saddened me as the chair of the policy subcommittee that had worked on the transgender policy because it’s so much more than that,” she said. “It’s not just that, but people seemed to be hung up on that issue and as a result, we tabled the policy so that we could review it.”

In addition to graduation attire, the policy addresses bathroom use by transgender students, student confidentiality, pronoun use on school records, participation in athletics, dress codes, staff training and the establishment of support teams for transgender students. For the use of bathrooms and locker rooms, students will be permitted to use gender-specific bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity and can also request the use of a single-access bathroom or private area for changing. A series of forms, removed from the final policy but intended to remain on file at schools, detail student information and supports available to transgender students.

Aside from the pushback on graduation gowns, the committee also received feedback from the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that was addressed in the latest version of the document. In an April 24 letter, the organizations asked the school board to include the same definition of gender used by the Rhode Island Department of Education and ensure that all students are allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The policy on locker rooms initially required students to request accommodations to be assessed on a case-by-case basis but was later changed to permit students to use the locker room that corresponds with their gender identity.

According to Supt. Patrick McGee, the new policy is in response to a mandate from RIDE and based on state guidelines already in place at most city schools. All staff will receive training and professional development on the policy beginning next academic year. The process of developing the policy, he said, started in 2017 but was delayed by a political dispute that led to several empty seats on the School Committee followed by the election of a new committee in 2018.

“As a result, what we said is we’re going to wait until this year when we have a complete School Committee,” he said.

The policy will take effect in the 2019-2020 school year pending a second vote by committee members for formal passage.

According to committee members, Woonsocket High School students will be able to choose the color of their graduation gowns beginning with the upcoming graduation ceremonies in June.