The family of a transgender student in Randolph is reeling from an onslaught of transphobic messages and social media posts fueled by what it says were inaccurate news stories about a locker room incident.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare. Horrifying. My family is in constant pain from the lies and harassment,” said the mother of the 14-year-old student, who attends Randolph Union High School.
Around midday on Monday the mother said she was heading to the school to pick up her daughter early because she “can’t make it through the day at this point.”
VTDigger is not naming the student or her mother because the former is a minor who has reported experiencing harassment.
A WCAX story that aired Sept. 28 and featured a student volleyball player objecting to a transgender teammate’s use of a school locker room was picked up by multiple news outlets, including Fox News, the New York Post and the British tabloid Daily Mail.
In an interview with VTDigger, the mother of the transgender student said the WCAX story, which relied on one student’s account, was inaccurate. She contested that student’s claim that her daughter had made an “inappropriate comment” in the locker room.
“Quite the opposite is what happened,” the parent said. “My child was bullied, the school launched an investigation.”
She also disputed the interviewed student’s assertion that other team members objected to her daughter’s presence in the locker room, saying that the team has played and traveled harmoniously together for weeks.
In an email to WCAX, she called the story “inaccurate” and “just altogether ugly.”
Layne Millington, superintendent of the Orange Southwest Supervisory District, confirmed that the school is investigating a complaint under its harassment, hazing and bullying policies but said federal privacy laws prevent him from providing any additional information.
He also pushed back against the WCAX story, which stated that the team was “banned” from the locker room after raising concerns with school administrators.
“The locker rooms were not shut down as a punishment or a consequence,” Millington said. “They were shut down really to kind of ensure student safety while the investigation is conducted, and the shutdown applied equally to all the members of the girls volleyball team.”
Millington further noted that the school has “a high number of both multi stall bathrooms and single occupancy bathrooms… So this claim of inconvenience is minimal at best.”
WCAX news director Roger Garrity told VTDigger in an email Monday that he was “unaware of any factual errors in our reporting.” He added, “I can’t speak to the effects our reporting has had in the community, but I do understand that this is an extremely sensitive topic that can evoke strong emotions.”
A parent of the student quoted in the WCAX story declined to comment.
The story “spread a wildfire of bigotry and hatred and (WCAX) should be held accountable for that,” the transgender student’s mother said. She shared examples of social media messages the family has received from local community members. VTDigger is not publishing them due to their transphobic content.
The mother said she has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and GLAAD, an organization that seeks to improve the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in the media.
LGBTQ+ youth in Vermont “experience violence and the constant threat of harm daily,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that supports and provides resources for queer and transgender students and families statewide.
Kaplan pointed to “the burden that people on the margins are facing in a climate where there is a lot of coordinated hate happening.” When a local story receives national attention, there are “networks of hate groups that are ready to just jump in and create hostility and discomfort,” Kaplan noted.
Trans and nonbinary youth suffer from extremely high rates of suicide and bullying, and the risk to mental health increases for transgender and nonbinary youth of color, according to a 2021 national survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth. GLAAD’s 2021 social media safety index indicates that 64% of LGBTQ+ people face online hate and harassment.
“It is critically important that school districts and leadership do right by all of their students so that everybody has access to a safe and affirming education,” Kaplan said.
LGBTQ+ student rights are enshrined in Vermont’s Public Accommodations Act. The Vermont Agency of Education requires schools to adopt “a student-centered focus” regarding transgender and gender-nonconforming students. Its guidance around restroom and locker rooms states that “a transgender student should not be required to use a locker room or restroom that conflicts with the student’s gender identity.”
State law also mandates that schools implement harassment, hazing and bullying policies.
“We expect that the school district will take the appropriate steps to address the matter in a way that complies with the law and is right for their community,” said Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the state Agency of Education.
“Student safety is our district’s highest priority,” said Caty Sutton, co-principal of Randolph Union Middle & High School, which serves 381 students from the towns of Randolph, Braintree and Brookfield.
“Where the policies and expectations are violated, we take disciplinary action consistent with the law and reasonably calculated to prevent further misconduct,” Sutton wrote in an email. “We also do our best to give victims supportive measures.”
Following last week’s news coverage of the situation in Randolph, the Orange Southwest Supervisory District’s website was hacked Saturday and inundated with transphobic hate speech, as VTDigger has reported.
The district launched a forensic investigation of the hack, reported it to law enforcement agencies and disabled the website and associated social media accounts.
According to Millington, the superintendent, the FBI is now investigating the matter.
The parent of the Randolph High student said the incident and sensationalized news coverage of it has “just opened the floodgates and given permission to all the bigots.”
But as her child struggles to return to school after a challenging weekend, the community support from parents, friends and support groups on social media has been incredible, she said. And the family also feels heard and supported by the school district, she said.
“I’ve got the school looking out for truth and safety and we’ve got lots of family and friends. We have our good days and our bad days,” she said. “Some days it feels like if we just stay strong the truth will come out and prevail.”
“One of the nice things about the district is that we’ve got a pretty robust support network. That includes students, staff, quite a number of different counselors specialized in different fields,” Millington said. “There’s a daily check in that goes on to ensure that each day is going smoothly and making sure that if anything else is happening, we're getting wind of it immediately.”
The girls’ volleyball team played a game Friday and Millington said its members “were spot on in terms of their behavior, they were supportive of one another, it was actually good to see.”
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