Transgender Student Remembers Year Marred By Bullying

Sep 24, 2014

Last year, we introduced you to Pawtucket student Hannah Rini, who was about to start her first year of middle school as an openly transgender student. Before her first day at Goff Junior High she was filled with hope about the new friends she would make.  She felt confident because of the way her elementary school friends accepted her when she came out:

“I don’t know how they knew, but they knew I was trans. Maybe the way I was acting? They just weren’t surprised one bit,” Rini said at the time.

HEAR THE FIRST PART OF HANNAH'S STORY HERE.

Hannah was a little nervous about gossip in the hallways, but the school year started out well. Then about half way through the year, she started to get bullied, and it turned out to be very difficult to stop. Rhode Island Public Radio education reporter Elisabeth Harrison checked back in with Hannah to see how she’s doing.

Hannah Rini came out as transgender while still in elementary school. She had a difficult first year in middle school, and has now transferred to a different Pawtucket school.
Credit Michelle Rini

Hannah Rini first came out as trans two years ago, when she was in sixth grade, and her experience was pretty positive. Her classmates seemed to accept her new name and longer hair, and she was hoping junior high would be no different.

Unfortunately, it was very different.

“They weren’t comfortable with me, like, because of me being transgender," Rini said. "Because they would like call me gay and stuff like that, f-word, like faggot, and they would call me other names that were unnecessary."

In the hallways, kids would call out Hannah’s old name, Sebastian, from when she lived as a boy. They sometimes knocked the books off her desk in the classroom and said things like put your hand down, nobody wants to hear you. Gym class, with 60 kids and just two teachers was a particular challenge.

“What I usually did was I would try my best to ignore it. Maybe, like under my breath, I would probably like in my head say something, but like nicely. But it kinda didn’t work because towards the end of the year I was getting so much that it just made me cry,” she said.

I don't know how, but I lost my capability to make friends.

Hannah’s shoulders go into a kind of protective shrug when she talks about the last school year, and you can tell it makes her uncomfortable. She struggled in her classes, and the bullying only made that harder. She avoided staying afterschool for tutoring because of all the name-calling. And the experience left her wondering whether she’ll be able to make friends.

“I kinda, I don’t know how, but like I lost my capability to make friends. Like I don’t know how to make friends anymore, I like lost it. I used to be able to make friends, like, perfect.”

Now that she’s 13, the social dynamics are lot more complex than when everyone just ran around together on the playground. Before starting a new school year at a brand new school, Hannah’s mom, Michelle Rini, wanted to give her something to look forward to. She took her to a hair salon in East Providence where a friend works as a stylist.

“She wants blond highlights, she’s talking about wanting tips,” Michelle Rini told the stylist.

Hannah has dark brown hair that’s grown longer over the last year, and her legs have stretched out too. She takes estrogen so she’ll develop just like other girls her age.

Michelle Rini and her daughter Hannah.
Credit Michelle Rini

Michelle Rini looks on as the stylist begins painting blond highlights Hannah’s hair and says she doesn’t blame the school for the bullying.

“I think they tried. I think they took everything we could give them, if she could give them a name and a specific action, it was taken care of, the kids were addressed,” said Rini.

But what they did and didn’t do to address the bullying is unclear because Pawtucket school officials didn’t return calls for this story. What is clear is that as the school year went on, the bullying got worse, and Rini admits the district probably didn’t know the full extent of it because her daughter just gave up.

“She stopped reporting a lot I think too because she felt like nothing was, it wasn’t being addressed, it wasn’t working,” Rini said.

And so, a few weeks before the end of her first year of middle school, Rini pulled Hannah out of school and admitted her to a program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

“She said she’s reaching her breaking point. It was very alarming, and that’s why I made the referral over to the partial program," Rini said. "There’s no reason that she would have to sit there and suffer through that."

Pawtucket has agreed to put Hannah into a special program this year that helps students struggling in their classes because of learning disabilities or social and emotional problems. But it takes a concerted effort to stop bullying, according to many school leaders.

“It must be stopped immediately in the moment and if its reported it must be investigated immediately,” said Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci.

Hannah Rini got a haircut before beginning the new school year.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

Ricci believes teachers and principals have to intervene quickly when bullying happens in the hallway or the classroom. Chariho has a transgender high school student, but unlike Hannah, Ricci said the student in his district has only reported a couple of incidents of bullying. He said it is possible to give students the message that bullying will not be tolerated.

“It has so much to do with school culture," Ricci said.  "And at least here, we don’t find a lot of it because kids are pretty accepting, kids are pretty tolerant. And we’re pretty firm about saying no, it’s not going to happen here."

But when bullying does happen, the price is all too clear. Studies have linked bullying to increased depression and anxiety and more difficulty in school.

Hannah Rini won’t be going back to Goff Junior High, but there is one thing she wishes she’d done differently.

“I would go up to the kids who had been mean to me and I would be like listen, we need to talk, because this bullying is not the best idea, because it can hurt others more than you think,” said Rini.

Hannah and her family are hoping that a new semester in a new school will bring the chance for a new start and a better environment for an openly transgender student. And maybe by the time Hannah gets to high school her peers will be a little bit older and a lot more accepting.

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