By Alison Novak | RANDOLPH, Vt. – On September 28, a mother in Randolph received a message from a friend with a link to a story on WCAX-TV’s website.
The local news station reported that the Randolph Union High School girls’ volleyball team had been banned from its locker room while school officials investigated a conflict involving an unnamed transgender athlete on the team.The friend asked the mother whether the piece was about her daughter, an openly transgender first-year student at the school. (The motherasked not to be named because of privacy and safety concerns.)
The mother viewed the video and immediately realized it was about a recent incident involving her daughter. The news report featured an interview with just one person — a girl on the team who said that a transgender teammate made an “inappropriate comment” while other girls were getting changed for practice. The girl told the WCAXreporter that “biological boys” should never be allowed in a girls’ locker room and that other teammates and parents had similar concerns.
The story cited a Vermont Agency of Education memo, titled“Continuing Best Practices for Schools Regarding Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students,”that says a student should not be made to use a locker room that conflicts with their gender identity.
The news report made the Randolph mother feel sick, she said, because it flew in the face of what her daughter told her had actually happened: that other players had harassedher. But in the days that followed, right-wing news outlets including Fox News, theNew York Post, and OutKick parroted the WCAX report and turned it into viral clickbait.
Now, the transgender student is being openly bullied in school, the mother said, while the school district was forced to disable its website over the weekend after it was hacked and inundated with “hate speech, symbols and photographs targeting transgender individuals,” according to Orange Southwest Superintendent Layne Millington.
On Monday, the Randolph mother gave her account of what happened toSeven Days.
One week before the WCAX report aired, she said,her daughter was changing in the girls’ locker room before volleyball practice when three teammates started yelling at her to get out and to stop looking at them.Her daughter hadn’t encountered that kind of open negativity about being transgender since moving to Randolph in eighth grade, the mother said, so the aggressive comments came as a surprise. The girl had also previously changed in the same room as her teammates.
“She never really felt unwelcome or like she didn’t belong,” her mother said.
After being yelled at, the girl went into a locker room bathroom stall to change. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to put on her team jersey, so she popped her head around the corner at one point to check with her teammates. The girls started yelling at her again.
When the transgender student walked into the gym after getting changed, she encountered the volleyball coach, who told the girl that she had overheard what had happened and was planning to report the incident to the school administration.
Two days later, an administrator called the mother to tell her that three people reported that her daughter had been bullied and harassed. As a result, the school was launching an investigation. The administrator also told the mother that the girls’ volleyball team could not be unsupervised in the locker room until the investigation was completed.
Superintendent Millington, who said he was unable to comment about the details of the investigation because of federal law protecting student information,confirmed part of the mother’s account in an email toSeven Days.The lockerroom was shut down “to ensure student safety while the investigation is conducted, and the shutdown applies equally to the entire team,” Millington wrote.
Administrators initially thought they would be able to keep the locker room open by finding people to supervise students, Millington said, but adults were reluctant to do so because of “false and escalating rhetoric on social media.”
After the mother saw theWCAXreport last week, she stayed up all night, crafting a long email to the station’s news director, Roger Garrity, telling him that the outlet’s reporting was “aggressive, inaccurate, one-sided, and just altogether ugly.”
In an emailed reply the mother shared withSeven Days, Garritywrote that the story wasattempting to “explore whether the laws and policies meant to protect transgenderedstudents fail to offer resolution to what some people see as an inherent conflict: having children born of different sexes undressing in the same room.” He also apologized for the distress the issue was causing the mother and her daughter.
The next day, the mother got a call from the high school. Another student had showed her daughter the WCAX video, prompting her to go straight to the principal’s office. Her mother went to to pick up her daughter, whom she described as “devastated” and “heartbroken.”
Throughout the saga, school administrators, teachers and counselors have been extremely supportive of her daughter, the mother said. However, she’s received unwelcome messages from community members on Facebook. In one, a man who identified himself as the father of the student interviewed on WCAX, wrote: “the truth is your son watched my daughter and multiple other girls change in the locker room. While he got a free show they got violated. you think this is fine and dandy, I wonder how you would feel if I watched you undress?”
The conflict contains all the elements of a classic culture-war story, and national right-wing outlets have glommed on to it.On Saturday, Fox News ran a story saying that volleyball players were banned from using the locker room “after some members objected to a biological male changing with them,” while theNew York Postwrote that the players had gotten into “adust up with a transgender athlete.”
Both media outlets noted that theVermont Agency of Education has a policy thatallows a transgender student to use the locker room that aligns with their gender identity.The Daily Signal, a news outlet run by the conservative Heritage Foundation, also published a lengthy article on Sunday, with more allegations attributed to unnamed members of the girls’ volleyball team. (The transgender girl’s mother denied the allegations.)
And Northfield Police Chief John Helfant, a Randolph parent, published a commentary on the right-wing website Vermont Daily Chronicle on Monday, asserting that “for a male student to view, watch a female student change her bra or underwear in a women’s locker room or bathroom”is a violation of the Vermont law against voyeurism.
The conflict drew the attention of transgender former Olympian Caitlin Jenner, who tweeted “Shame on Vermont!” for allowing “biological boys with penises changing next to our daughters in locker rooms, and then have our daughters scolded by the school.” She also went on the morning TV show “Fox & Friends” to discuss the controversy. Well-known evangelist Franklin Graham, meanwhile, wrote to his 10 million followers on Facebook that “this story from Vermont just leaves you shaking your head.”
In his role as executive director ofOutright Vermont, Dana Kaplan consults frequently with administrators, educators, LGBTQ+ youth and their families about issues such as this one.
“In 2022, it’s not that unfamiliar that this kind of thing is happening, especially amidst the current hostile climate,” Kaplan said.“Ultimately, kids are trying to be kids. They’re trying to go to school. They’re trying to play sports. They’re trying to go to the bathroom. They’re trying to get changed.
“They’re going about their lives, and it’s the discomfort of outer circles of people — oftentimes politically motivated — that ultimately gets in the way and turns this into something … much bigger than any young person should have to navigate in their day-to-day life.”
The situation has certainly snowballed in Randolph. On Monday, the mother was called to pick up her daughter from school midway through the day because she was being called a “pervert” and “freak” in the lunchroom and hallways, she said. The mother said that her daughter was planning to stay home on Tuesday to reset and then return on Wednesday.
She said her daughter is torn because by not going to school, she feels like she is letting down other transgender and queer students — but she also knows she needs to take care of herself.The mother is hoping that national organizations such the American Civil Liberties Union and theTrevor Projecttake notice of her daughter’s story. She also wants WCAX to take more responsibility for its reporting.
“I feel like they have a moral and ethical duty to acknowledge the harm that they did and rectify it by doing some kind of educational piece on what transgenderism is,” the mother said.
In a statement toSeven DaysonMonday night,WCAXnews director Garrity wrote that the purpose of last week’s news report “was to examine a dispute over locker room usage and what state education policy has to say about it.” He said he believed the story accomplished that.
“We are aware that this is an extremely sensitive topic that can evoke strong emotions,” Garrity continued. “As journalists, we can’t shy away from those conversations, but hope that our reporting will inform viewers and lead to better understanding.”
The transgender student has also written to Garrity to let him know how she feels.
“I am here to inform you that what was written about me is not truthful, I had never made inappropriate comments in the girls locker room nor outside of it. That is a lie,” she wrote in an email shared withSeven Days. “News is meant to inform but all you have done is enable lies that not only hurt me, but hurt the transgender youth that are within Randolph and Vermont.”
Alison is the former managing editor atKids VT,Seven Days’parenting publication and writes about education forSeven Days.
You can email Alison at: [emailprotected]
The preceding article was previously published by Seven Days, an independent weekly newspaper covering Vermont news and is republished by permission.
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