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Steve Ahlquist's excellent coverage of transgender student policies in Barrington, Foster-Glocester, North Kingstown and Westerly

Over the course of the past three months, independent journalist Steve Ahlquist has been one of the only people in Rhode Island to offer thorough and timely coverage of transgender student school policies around the state. He reported on Westerly in January and again in March, Barrington and North Kingstown in February, and Foster-Glocester in March.

Ahlquist bills himself on Substack as "Rhode Island's hardest working journalist," and Options' editorial leadership is inclined to agree. He provides frequent and empathetic coverage of the state's LGBTQ+ communities - read excerpts of his 2024 coverage of school policies below (in reverse chronological order, most recent first) and click through to his personal page to read the full articles.


Near the conclusion of its March 21 meeting, the Westerly School Committee unanimously voted to replace the existing Transgender, Gender Non-conforming, and Transitioning Student Policy, created by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) - based on the best application of state and federal law and top-tiered medical knowledge - with one of their own creation.


The School Committee's effort to “edit” the policy is being led by Committee Members Lori Wycall and Christine Cooke. School Committee Chair Robert Cillino noted that Committee Member Wycall asked to have the item on the agenda.


Vice-Chair Guiseppe Gencarelli: "Last night I found this interesting article that I figured I'd share with all of you and give you a timeline of everything that's happened. I found this to be interesting. This was from the ACLU, in June 2017.

Back in 2010, [the RI ACLU did a] policy breakdown, by school districts, on anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity expression. Several districts in Rhode Island had a policy regarding that. Westerly and seven others did not have any policy either from RIDE or a different policy from the school committee.

In 2014, there was a school committee meeting in Westerly regarding the policy for transgender and gender non-conforming students. That was discussed and it was ultimately tabled without a resolution. Unfortunately, based on school committee minutes and news reports, the reason seems clear - dozens of residents came to the meeting to express vehement opposition to the policy. This response highlighted the need for state involvement. That got the ACLU involved and they went to the state because every school district should have a detailed policy to address the many privacy, confidentiality, and inequality issues that the needs of transgender and gender non-conforming students present… RIDE created the guidelines to help districts. Chariho, Westerly, and all the other districts adopted what RIDE put out.

I didn't know the history behind it all, so I figured I'd share it with all of you. I agree that we should have our policy because I think the state guideline is too general. I think it was a protocol for us to take and use to write our policy."

Editor's note - This recent development in Westerly is contextualized by Ahlquist's previous reporting in January, linked here and excerpted below: Hate and Love: Westerly School Committee takes up Transgender student policy (1/18/24)

"After a presentation from Attorney Mary Ann Carroll explaining that the district's Transgender, Gender Nonconforming & Transitioning Students protocol conforms to state and federal law as mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), and has worked without incident since 2017, School Committee member Lori Wycall went on the attack with a fear-mongering hypothetical."


"Committee member Wycall then went on to say that the School Committee should reject the policy and let RIDE punish them. She was in favor of going to court in opposition to the policy."


Committee member Wycall's hostility towards the policy seemed an outlier on the committee, but only a few members seemed willing to offer their unqualified support for a statewide policy based on best medical and educational practices to enhance student rights and health outcomes.


Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy spoke of her initial discomfort with the policy when it was first adopted statewide in 2017, but said that over time, as she asked questions and saw the policy working, she came to accept it as a best practice.


For the record, School Superintendent Mark Garceau denied the fiction (stated by Wycall) that a male student could walk in tomorrow and say, “I'm going to use the girls' room.” The policy does not allow that.


As ugly as the School Committee discussion was, public comment was worse. Aside from the man quoted at the beginning of the piece, half a dozen more added their opposition. One of the speakers was Michelle Cretella, former executive director of the American College of Pediatrics (ACPed), identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as "a fringe anti-LGBT hate group that masquerades as a premier United States association of pediatricians to push LGBT junk science…”


Public comment is also where three Westerly residents stood up and spoke eloquently in defense of the policy...Madeline Labriola, grandmother to a 16-year-old transgender girl whom she accepts and loves “for who she is without conditions,” said in part:

“As a grandmother of a transgender grandchild, I'm going to speak from my heart. I watched my granddaughter from a very young age present as a girl, although she was born with male genitalia. At 15 she's transitioning and attends a high school in Connecticut where she's accepted as a girl and is an active participant in school life. There are non-gender-specific bathrooms and private spaces available for all students if they choose to use them.

“It hasn't been an easy road for her or her family, but we are loving and supportive of her and especially protective of her human right not to be discriminated against in any way. As with any of my grandchildren, I accept her and love her for who she is without conditions. Even Pope Francis has spoken to this issue and declared that LGBTQ+ people are still God's children. We have a long way to go in our country in accepting those who do not fit the norm and in making accommodations for them. It will take time to convince many people that LGBTQ plus rights must be protected. In the meantime, it is up to school officials to uphold the non-discrimination laws of our country and ensure the protection and safety of each side.”


Nicole Solas, an outspoken, right-wing “parents rights” and anti-trans activist, dared the Smithfield School Committee to push back against the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE)'s mandated Transgender, Gender [Diverse], and Transitioning Students policy last July, despite the probability that the outcome meant loss of state funds for the school and a probable and expensive lawsuit.


Finding a school committee in Rhode Island willing to go to court with RIDE's policy on Transgender, Gender [Diverse], and Transitioning Students seems a big part of the strategy being employed by the small number of anti-trans activists in the state. Finding a school board that would be so fiscally irresponsible is the issue. Few attorneys engaged by school boards to provide legal counsel seem willing to tell their clients that there are no dangers to challenging RIDE's authority - or at least I thought so until I attended the Foster-Glocester Combined School Committee hearing on Tuesday night, where that district's Transgender, Gender [Diverse], and Transitioning Students policy was being discussed. (Editor's note: Ahlquist linked a 20 minute video recording of the discussion in his article and on YouTube.)


“The reason this is on the agenda tonight is that the Foster-Glocester Superintendent, [Renee Palazzo], received an email from RIDE on February 21st,” said attorney Gregory Piccirilli, hired by the School Committee to provide legal guidance. That email from RIDE’s School Health, Policy, and Program Specialist Ayisha Gbolashare outlined five areas in Foster-Glocester's policy that needed improvement to align with state regulations.


As Attorney Piccirilli explained to the School Committee, he believes that the “guidance” is nonbinding. According to Attorney Piccirilli, “The guidance has no force of anything. The only thing that has the force of law is the regulations...


“Those regulations have the force and effect of law. They're not guidance, they're like a statute,” said Attorney Anthony Cottone, Chief Legal Counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), addressing this issue last year in Smithfield. “The regulations provide that each school district must adopt a policy providing a safe, supportive, and non-discriminatory school environment for transgender and gender non-conforming students. And this is a significant point - that it is consistent with state and national best practices, guidance, and model policies.”


Putting aside the idea that policies defending the health and safety of Transgender, Gender [Diverse], and Transitioning Students is a “very controversial issue” [It is not2], I was at the hearing held by former Commissioner of Education Kenneth Wagner, under whose leadership the Transgender, Gender [Diverse], and Transitioning Students policy was developed from 2016-2018. Far from being vague, the Commissioner was quite specific about what the policy was and why it was being done.

“What this policy is doing,” said Commissioner Wagner, “is articulating guidance around what districts have always had a responsibility to do, which is to implement statutory protections for Transgender, Gender [Diverse] individuals. This policy does not proscribe what local policies need to look like. What it does proscribe is that local school districts will need to have a policy in place, and it identifies complicated issues and districts have to address each of those issues in their policy.”


Though Attorney Piccirilli has been legal counsel to the Foster-Glocester School Committee for many years, some of his other legal work marks him as an unusual and perhaps even questionable choice for the role:

  1. He's the Goldwater Institute's American Freedom Network attorney representing Nicole Solas in her lawsuit against the South Kingstown School Committee over Access to Public Records Act (APRA) violations. [See here]

  2. He is also the local attorney working with a Texas-based law firm representing two people who are suing their healthcare providers for medical negligence during their gender transition. [In her testimony against the healthcare provider shield law, Nicole Solas, reading the words of Dr. Michelle Cretella, highlighted these lawsuits.]

  3. He has sued the state over mask and vaccine mandates; and,

  4. He is the lawyer retained by the Trump campaign in a lawsuit over his eligibility to be on Rhode Island’s 2024 presidential primary ballot.


[Barrington's school board met in February to discuss] potential changes to the school system’s Gender Support and Inclusion Policy for Transgender, Gender-Diverse, and Transitioning Students. The policy, which currently aligns with state and federal law, is based on a model policy put forth by the Rhode Island Department of Education. The policy has worked well in Rhode Island, expanding and protecting the privacy and gender rights of students for six years without incident.


Former Barrington City Councilmember Jacob Brier encouraged the school board to vote to approve the policy as it is, even if some of the language changes that have crept in over the last several meanings have “created some concern.”

“The role of the school committee in setting policy is not to accommodate a lack of understanding about an issue by injecting things into a policy to make parents feel safe at the cost of students actually being safe,” said Jacob Brier. “The school committee should set the right policy and then strive to adequately communicate why it's the right policy to the general public…

“Barrington School District has some of the best professionals in the field. We need to let them do their jobs. Legislators don't need to tell social workers, psychologists, counselors, or educators how to define or assess risk or how to define or assess safety concerning the students. Their training and professional experience tell them that when a student discloses their gender identity to a trusted adult and asks that their chosen name be used and that their pronouns be correct, the school is not cutting parents out of the loop. The student has chosen to do that. They've chosen to wait before coming out to their parents. That is their right, and mandating that students be outed to their parents won't increase parental information, it will simply reduce the options that students have and lead to more of our kids feeling ostracized and possibly committing self-harm.”


“I’m here to share a personal story,” said Barrington parent Rebecca. “I have two kids in middle school, one of them is trans. They read the newspaper. They know what's going on in the world, and they asked me to share the fact that they read.

“They'd said to me today, ‘Do you know that 40% of minors commit suicide when they don't have parent support at home, or if they're scared to tell their parents, and that number goes down to 5% when they have a supportive adult in their lives?’ …

“I want to share, in light of the discussions, that my child has benefited from the current gender diversity policy. When they hear that there are discussions, I see terror and fear in their faces. I am here to ensure that not only do they feel safe, [but that they] do not have that fear as they go throughout life, [and] that all children and people have that opportunity for safety, respect, and trust.

The Barrington School Committee Policy Subcommittee [met in January to discuss] in detail, proposed changes to the district's Gender Support and Inclusion Policy for Transgender, Gender-Diverse, and Transitioning Students on Thursday evening. Among the changes is the use of the term “gender-diverse” rather than the term “gender non-conforming” as the former term is considered to be stigmatizing.

The policy was in process before the full Barrington School Committee but was sent to the policy subcommittee to revise some of the language, especially around parental notification. The discussion by the committee members on the subcommittee was smart, nuanced, and respectful. The changes reflect the best practices contained within the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE)’s mandated statewide policy and accord with state and federal law.


Assistant Superintendent Paula Dillon summarized the changes to the policy:

“The first item was to define who the teams are that are working with students and [to define] a different team for elementary and secondary [students]. For the elementary they involve the family, for the secondary, they involve the family if the student is okay with that. They also involve the guidance counselor, social worker, psychologist, and an administrator of the school.

“The second change [is] if secondary school students are not yet comfortable talking to their parents and disclosing to their parents then [defining] what that looks like. The recommendation had been that it be somehow at least touched by the superintendent so the superintendent is aware that that has happened. We just clarified that it’s not an approval, it’s just so the superintendent is aware because some people were concerned that the superintendent was making that decision - and he's not. But if [the superintendent] has concerns about that decision, they [can] reach back to the team.

“We added in [that] one of the purposes of the policy is to encourage the student to engage with their parents or their family. It doesn't require it, but it encourages... We also clarified that the school has no role in [any] physical or medical transition and that we do not make recommendations regarding either of those topics.”

North Kingstown

The North Kingstown School Committee in February unanimously passed the policy on Transgender and Non-Binary Students, a policy many other school districts in the state have found challenging due to misinformation and fear being spread by right-wing anti-trans bigots. Many well-meaning people have found themselves under the sway of political opportunists who deliberately target vulnerable children. But the science is clear.


“Our current policy on transgender students was adopted in 2018 and [simply] says that we adopt the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) guidance on transgender and non-conforming students,” said North Kingstown School Committee Member Jennifer Lima at the January 25 School Committee Business meeting. “Our policy doesn't specifically call out the protections that are provided in those guidances. What we did in the policy [sub] committee was revise it to be more specific about how we're supporting our students who are transgender and non-binary.”


Former State Senator James Sheehan (Democrat, District 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) was appointed to the School Committee in December. Though he was not present at the January 26 or the February 6 meeting, he sent in some written recommendations about the revision to the policy. Sadly, his revisions showed a lack of understanding about the issue.


After Committee Member Sheehan’s recommendations were read to the committee, Committee Member Lima clarified that the “high incidents of mental health, suicide, and other stressors that transgender youth face are not because they are transgender. It has nothing to do with who they are. It's because of the issues that they face from other people not accepting them.”

Committee Member Lima was strong in her defense of the policy, and the need to adopt it.

“The underlying theme I picked up from a lot of the questions was, ‘How come you notify a parent about if they're drinking? How come you notify a parent if they skip school?’” said Lima. “It's important to note that those things are either illegal or against policy and it presumes that there is something inherently wrong with being transgender and thus parents need to be notified. And that's not the case. We don't notify parents if Billy kisses Susie or Susie kisses Sally. We are not notifying parents of those things. Being transgender is somebody's identity. It's not something that they have done wrong.

“One thing that I just want to point out is that the transitions [talked about in] this policy are social transitions. The district is not facilitating medical or surgical interventions, and anyone who says otherwise is either uninformed or deliberately feeding into the anti-trans narratives.

“Right now we're seeing countless attempts here in Rhode Island and around the country to take away dignity, safety, and freedom [from] transgender youth. There are policies to remove all mention of sexual orientation or gender identity from our classrooms and roll back anti-discrimination protections."


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