Northfield police chief’s public comments on school locker rooms draw rebuke

John Helfant. Photo courtesy of Northfield Police Department

The leader of an organization supporting LGBTQ+ people in Vermont said recent online posts by Northfield Police Chief John Helfant about transgender kids’ use of locker rooms undercut his ability to serve the town.

“(Helfant’s) actions cultivate a community culture of hate against trans youth and people. How can he hold such a substantial and essential role in the community?” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont. “How are trans community members — or any community members who do not share his views — supposed to feel safe or rely on the department?”

Helfant, a parent of three students in the Orange Southwest School District, used Front Porch Forum this month to target Layne Millington, the school superintendent, and the state law allowing students to use the locker room that matches their gender identity. 

Addressing Millington by name, Helfant wrote, “Local people are not full of hate or bigotry, we just simply do not believe as you do or as the Agency of Education does through their state wide policy. We believe in traditional US norms for bathrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms.”

Kaplan stressed the damage that Helfant’s words, as a police chief, can cause transgender people.

“As the police chief, he is the highest-ranking officer of the local law enforcement department and is responsible for the safety of all community members within his service area,” Kaplan said in a statement. “It’s a small department in a small community, which means that the reverberations of his influence are significant and pose a threat to vulnerable community members.”

Transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of crime, according to research from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Last month, the Northfield police chief was told he could no longer volunteer as a coach for the Randolph Union High School girls soccer team due to an incomplete background check. He later told VTDigger that he believed the decision was retaliation for publicly opposing the use of a girls locker room by a transgender student on the school’s girls volleyball team. 

Helfant did not respond to an email and voicemail requesting comment for this story.

In his recent posts, Helfant chastised the district’s quality of education and voiced his support for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group suing Orange Southwest. 

“I personally believe that anyone can be what or who they want to be,” he wrote. “That’s the joy of living in this great country. There are limits though.”

In another post regarding the locker room policy, Helfant invoked the name of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who attracted the scorn of conservatives for using the phrase “people with a period” while discussing menstruation in an effort to use trangender-inclusive language. 

In his public writings, Helfant referred to “people with periods” and their right to privacy. 

“This is not how I wanted this phrased, but in the interest of trying to have a discussion, and not having my posts rejected, I’ll use the words of Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, ‘people with periods,’” he wrote. 

“My views are not outdated, bigoted or hateful, they are main stream. Most people with periods (Whitmer) do not want someone without periods (Whitmer) in a bathroom, changing room or shower room with them when they are in their undergarments, partially naked or naked,” Helfant continued, using the parentheticals. 

Randolph Union High School became a topic of international right-wing media after a story published by WCAX in September featured a student volleyball player objecting to a transgender teammate’s use of a school locker room. That story spurred hate speech toward the girl and her family, the girl’s mother later told VTDigger. WCAX has since deleted that story in an attempt to quell the controversy.

Falko Schilling, the ACLU of Vermont’s advocacy director, said it is “always troubling when someone in a position of power and authority voices bigoted opinions that are both hurtful and false.”

“Mr. Helfant, like any other Vermonter, can voice his personal views when he’s not on duty,” Schilling wrote in a statement. “But make no mistake: his views are both wrong as a matter of law and deeply offensive to Vermonters who care about the rights and dignity of trans students.”

Northfield Town Manager Jeff Schulz said he and the selectboard are “aware of the concerns” about Helfant’s comments. 

“We’ve heard comments from folks in the community. So we’re aware of the situation, so to speak, and the statements of the chief,” Schulz said. He declined to comment further on what he called a “personnel issue.”

Northfield Police Department policy states that employees shall not “express any prejudice concerning race, color, religion, sex, politics, national origin, lifestyle or similar characteristics.” A first offense carries a minimum punishment of a written reprimand, and a maximum punishment of a two-day suspension.

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