State lawmakers on the House Education Committee met for a public hearing April 11 on H7539, a bill that seeks to restrict teaching about race, sexuality, and gender identity in Rhode Island public schools. Hundreds of Rhode Islanders submitted written testimony to the committee, and many also came to the Rhode Island State House to voice their opinions on the legislation.
The bill, originally introduced on February 18, proposes new guidelines for programs that deal with topics of race and sexuality. The bill would ban educators from teaching history that portrays members of any race as victim or oppressor and ban the use of ‘derogatory’ terms such as ‘supremacy’, ‘racial guilt’ and ‘racial fragility’. according to the text of the bill. Additionally, the bill states that “sex education shall not explore sexual preferences, gender dysphoria, or sexual lifestyles.” The bill states that in teaching these subjects, students are not “judged and accepted on the content of their character” but rather on “their race, ethnic origin, sex or religion”.
Rep. Patricia Morgan, a Republican from Warwick who drafted the bill, told the Herald the bill was intended to protect the civil rights of children in schools. Children “are not judged as individuals” when topics such as race, sexuality and gender identity are taught in schools, Morgan said. “They’re being stereotyped and judged as members of an identity group, … and I think that’s against civil rights law,” she added.
Morgan said she has received “at least 100 phone calls” from parents who are concerned about what their children are being taught in schools and who believe their children’s civil rights are being violated in the classroom.
Rep. Edith Ajello, a Democrat who represents College Hill in the House, opposes the bill. “It’s divisive (and) it’s mean-spirited,” she told the Herald. “And it does nothing to improve the education of children in our schools (and nothing) to help them live in this world and thrive in this world.”
Some at the hearing earlier this month said the part of the bill dealing with sexuality and gender identity education looks like other bills passed in state legislatures across the country in recent months, including a bill past in Florida in March that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which garnered national attention.
But according to Morgan, H7539 has nothing to do with legislation appearing in other states. Instead, the bill is about “enabling the right people to help those kids” who identify as LGBTQ+, she said.
John Palella, a lecturer in education and a researcher on teaching LGBTQ+ history in the classroom and racial history, told the Herald that it’s important for children to learn about gender and sexuality at a younger age. “As all the research shows, it’s actually super healthy for kids to learn different gender identities, different identities of themselves…and (to understand) the inclusiveness and diversity of those identities. “, did he declare.
Teaching children these identities can also provide them with the tools to identify their own experiences, according to Warwick-based child psychiatrist Daisy Bassen. “I think when kids understand and have a language to describe what they’re going through, they’re able to feel good about themselves…and participate in the world in a positive way,” she told the Herald.
But Morgan alleged that classrooms are not the appropriate environments for these discussions. “Teachers are not therapists, they are not psychologists, they are not mental health professionals,” she said. “They don’t have the expertise to deal with these issues.”
Instead, Morgan thinks conversations about gender identity and sexuality should stay between children and their parents. “No one cares about you more than your mom and dad,” she explained.
“I was a teacher and cared about my (students),” Morgan said. “But the truth is I was (just) a tourist in their lifetime.” Morgan said parents are a much more constant presence in children’s lives, and conversations about gender and sexuality with parents should happen, even though they can be difficult.
But Bassen noted that may not be the case for all children. “Obviously, we hope every child has a family system where they can feel nurtured, valued and loved,” she said. “But that’s not true for all kids (and sometimes) they need to find that affirmation and recognition in a teacher, in a guidance counselor, in a coach,” she added.
Ajello agreed that children need to be able to rely on their teachers for support. “Most of us as parents and as human beings probably can’t imagine all the different challenges some students bring to school and face in their own lives,” Ajello said. “We need to give teachers the freedom to (help) deal with this in a positive way.”
Morgan said parents should send their children to see a mental health professional if they are struggling with their gender identity or sexuality, but she opposes having such mental health professionals in schools. .
According to Bassen, having access to mental health support in schools is beneficial for students. Schools focus on their students’ social-emotional development, Bassen said, and she doesn’t “understand how you can work on social-emotional development and not have school psychologists or social workers” available to students. students. She added that when mental health professionals are in schools, students can more easily and immediately access mental health resources.
Palella stressed that students should be supported and accepted in schools. “It is not up to the school to control the identity of children,” he said. “It’s (in school) about creating family space for them to explore and be supported.”
“Schools that have open dialogues about gender and sexuality are the schools where trans or gender non-conforming or LGBTQ+ students are the healthiest and happiest, when they have these spaces to talk about their identity,” Palella added.
Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.
As for the future of the bill, Morgan said she would refine the language with lawyers to clarify any ambiguities. But the main purpose of the bill will not change, she said.
The bill is intended to “protect our children,” Morgan said, “to ensure that their civil rights are protected in all cases, and to refocus educators (and) our schools on their primary purpose, which is to prepare children to a successful adult life by teaching them academics,” she added.
Ajello believes that support for the bill is not widespread. And in a state legislature with a strong Democratic majority, the chances of the bill passing remain slim, she added.
“I understand that legislation like this is concerning,” Ajello said. “The fact that the subject is (being) discussed and discussed in Rhode Island at the State House is … deeply concerning. But I don’t think there is a majority of opinion among my colleagues who would support adopting something like that.
Although the bill will “likely die” in committee, she said, the bill’s supporters “could come back with a big game” in the next legislative session.