Johnston School Committee removes student sexuality questions from risk survey

Posted 2/20/24

Tasked with approving the latest annual student risk survey, the Johnston School Committee unanimously decided to remove two questions that ask about student sexual identity.

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Johnston School Committee removes student sexuality questions from risk survey


Tasked with approving the latest annual student risk survey, the Johnston School Committee unanimously decided to remove two questions that ask about student sexual identity.

“We went through the whole survey … the very first page, I just have a problem,” said School Committee Vice-Chairman Joseph Rotella. “They’re asking all these questions. I know that this is a voluntary survey. But honestly, if you’re looking for results from students, why do you need to know about how they identify, what their gender is?”

Patricia Sweet, Director of the Southern Providence County Regional Prevention Coalition, attended the meeting to field questions prior to the scheduled vote.

She told the committee members that the survey results would help the coalition to “develop programs and interventions for at-risk behaviors by minimizing the risky behaviors of the youth and the community.”

“Without the RI student survey being administered, would not be able to continue with the ... grant, specifically for Johnston, that we’ve had for the last 4 years, which allows us to have $125,000 each year, to implement initiatives in both the middle and high school, which we’ve been doing, right along as both principals and administration can tell you,” Sweet explained. “The survey is really crucial for us to understand where the kids are at and what the risks that they are anticipating or experiencing, so we can put interventions in place to minimize their risks in the community.”

Risk Established

According to Sweet, the schools have been administering the survey since 2016, usually between the months of January and April. Johnston Schools Superintendent Bernard DiLullo Jr. said the district’s middle and high school students take the survey. Tri-County Community Action Agency oversees the prevention coalition.

“As far as the age and the grade, that’s fine,” Rotella said. “As far as any of the other demographics, I don’t think that’s necessary … I know that I’ve had a lot of parents who’ve talked to me in the past when you guys have done these surveys, and it’s really aggravating. I’ve got to be honest with you.”

Rotella said he understands asking questions like, “Have you been bullied?”

“And things like that,” Rotella argued. “I can understand that. And if you need information about alcohol and tobacco use, I can get that too. But as far as this first part of the survey, I don’t think it’s necessary, and to be quite honest with you, if you insist on it, then I’m going to vote totally against it.”

Sweet addressed Rotella’s concerns. She assured the committee that the survey results are anonymous, and a certain set of questions is required by the state.

“So it’s obviously not I who put those questions in there, it’s the state that puts the questions in,” Sweet told the committee. “And they found that it’s necessary for us to find out what population of the students might identify as that, because the LGBTQ … are at three times greater risk than their (straight) peers. Obviously you know it’s anonymous. They don’t have to answer those questions. If we take it out, we won’t know if there’s a population in your schools that need our extra help or intervention to help them.”

Rotella, and the other four committee members, remained unconvinced.

“Quite frankly, honestly, anybody who’s bullied needs their help,” Rotella said. “So it doesn’t make a difference how they identify. They can identify as anything they want to identify as. No child should be bullied. It doesn’t make a difference what their race, creed or sexual orientation is. So if you truly want to help kids, then I don’t feel that that’s necessary.”

The Questions

Rotella also suggested removing Question 7: “What is your race? (select all that apply)”

“Because anybody who needs help should get help,” Rotella said. “It doesn’t make a difference. Because it fits some little box; some checkbox. It doesn’t mean some kids are more deserving than others. Like I said, if you go ahead with that, I’ll tell you, I’m just not for it.”

DiLullo gently interrupted the discussion to ask a question: “Can you administer the survey without those three questions?”

Sweet replied that the two questions dealing with sexual orientation could be removed, but not the race question.

“We could actually eliminate the two questions, which would be question 4 and question 5,” she explained. “Those are the two questions that will keep the fidelity of the survey.”

Question 4 asks, “Some people describe themselves as transgender when their sex at birth does not match the way they think or feel about their gender. Are you transgender?” The question provides the following multiple-choice answers: “No, I am not transgender,” “Yes, I am transgender,” “I am not sure if I am transgender,” and “I do not know what this question is asking.”

Question 5 asks, “Which of the following best describes you? Heterosexual (straight), Gay or lesbian, Bisexual, Not sure.”

Don’t Ask?


Rotella was not fully appeased by the removal of just two of the questions. He suggested removing a third.

“Why does it matter if they’re African American, Asian American, Alaskan, Native Hawaiian?” He asked. “If they need help they should get help. I would never deprive an Alaskan, a Native American, or an African American, a Caucasian, anybody, the help that they need.”

Sweet tried to steer the question back to the point of the survey.

“It’s not to deprive them, but yet to get the demographics of the population that we’re dealing with,” she answered Rotella.

“But how does that help?” Rotella asked. “You get more money for different demographics?”

“No,” Sweet replied. “It just makes us fine-tune our interventions or our programming.” She continued to explain that additional grant money could be available if the school’s population meets certain criteria.

“If we kept those two questions it would help us to apply for additional grants for Johnston,” she explained.

“So you do get more money!” Rotella shot back.

“No, no, no,” Sweet replied. “If there are grants out there that are to service that population we would need to have the numbers as to who we would be servicing.”

“So you could get more money,” Rotella replied.

Sweet told the board that it was within their purview to eliminate the two questions on sexual identity.

“Four and five are the two that the state is allowing us to eliminate,” Sweet said. “We can not give the survey … if we eliminate the race question … We need those basic demographics.”

Shared Opinion

The rest of the board weighed in briefly.

Committee Member Susan Mansolillo asked Sweet if the coalition would alter its programming based on the survey results.

“Is it the same program?” She asked. “Is it different?”

Sweet said that if the survey found a “substantial amount of that particular population” then the coalition “would go out to seek additional funding to help them.”

“How do we make them more comfortable?” Sweet asked hypothetically. “As you know, that population is bullied more. They don’t feel safe at school, three times more than their straight peers. They’re bullied more and they use substances more. So if there was a substantial (population) … we could try to find additional funding to help those students in particular, while we’re still working with the general population.”

Mansolillo said she had lingering concerns.

“At this age, students, they’re at an age where they’re very susceptible,” she said. “They’re learning. They’re finding their way. They’re figuring it out. They might not know how to answer this. They might think this one day; they might not think this the next day … And that concerns me.”

Sweet told the committee that staff from the University of Rhode Island (URI) epidemiology department would administer the survey if approved. And before giving the survey, the staff would “receive proctor training.” Students are informed they don’t have to answer any questions that make them feel uncomfortable.

“I have concerns about (questions) 4 and 5,” Mansolillo said.

“I do too Sue,” Rotella replied.

Committee Chairman Robert Lafazia went around the table, asking each member how they felt.

“Dawn?” Lafazia asked committee member Dawn Aloisio.

“I think that 4 and five should be taken out,” she answered.

“Marysue?” He asked committee member Marysue Andreozzi.

“Agreed,” she answered.

“I’m going to ask that we take out (questions) four and five at this time,” Lafazia said, as chairman. “Somebody make a motion when that time comes.”

Sweet said that wasn’t a problem.

“I would reach out to URI and ask them to please remove four and five; and when the surveys come out, four and five will be missing,” she told the committee. “It will be renumbered.”

After the meeting, upon request, DiLullo provided a copy of the survey. Asked to weigh in on the survey, and the removal of several questions, the superintendent replied: “I don't believe the survey will impact our services for all students. We have a very solid clinical team that works with all students and their families regarding any issues that they may be dealing with.”


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