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Westerly plan to rewrite Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Transitioning Student Policy crashing into reality

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Steve Alquist's reader-supported Substack on May 02, 2024. It is reprinted here with his permission.

In March the Westerly School Committee voted unanimously to replace the existing Transgender, Gender Diverse, 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 creation. Last night the Committee unveiled what Committee member Lori Wycall referred to as a “very rough draft” of a new policy. This policy lacks basic protections for transgender, gender diverse, and transitioning youth and calls for the “forced outing” of children who may be in the early stages of questioning their gender identity.

As Ryan Fontaine, Trans Education and Policy Specialist at Thundermist Health Center testified, “Just as significant as what is written in the draft is what is left out. This draft is missing statements that affirm transgender students' access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities consistent with their gender. While addressing athletics the draft leaves out an affirmative statement that students will be allowed to participate in interscholastic sports consistent with their gender in alignment with the Rhode Island Interscholastic League rules. This draft is missing an overall affirmative statement that students would be allowed to participate in school activities consistent with their gender.”

Committee member Wycall, who appears to be the main driver of the revised policy, said that she had “three main goals” for the new policy:

  1. Keep gender-specific restrooms and have accommodations for any student who does not want to use one of those bathrooms.

  2. Segregate locker rooms and overnight field trips - “because the way the protocol from RIDE reads, anybody can pick any place they want to stay. And that's not what I'm comfortable with.”

  3. Outing kids to their parents: “I look at it differently than calling it ‘outing kids,” said Committee member Wycall. “I look at it as involving the parents and having the school work as a bridge of communication between the child and the parent, guardian, or caregivers…”

But as Committee member Leslie Dunn pointed out the current policy “is not about hiding anything. It's about making sure that we are not putting a child in an even more dangerous situation when they're trying to navigate something. The goal is to get them to a place where they can have that conversation, and give them the tools to make sure we have the right support to say, ‘We want to be a part of this discussion to get everybody on the same page.’”

Members of Washington County Moms for Liberty, an antigovernment extremist group, also testified in favor of the revised policy.

Here’s the transcript, edited for clarity:

Westerly School Committee Chair Robert Cillino: Members of the public are invited to address the school committee during the Open Forum. Members wishing to speak, please raise your hand and you will be recognized. Each speaker will have five minutes with an additional five minutes if needed. After all other members of the community who wish to speak have spoken committee members will be able to respond if they choose. After all public comments are completed, this open forum will be on agenda items only. So is there anybody who wishes to address the school committee at this time? Come on up and just state your name, please.

Amy Rodriguez [Moms for Liberty]: Good evening. I'm Amy Rodriguez from Narragansett. I'm here to speak, standing in proxy for Robert Chiaradio. Title IX, adopted in 1972, consists of 37 words. “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” As a result of Title IX, any school that receives any federal money, from the elementary to university level - in short, nearly all schools - must provide fair and equal treatment of the sexes in all areas, including athletics. Title IX was written primarily to protect women from discrimination based on sex, not men identifying as women. Not only does the Biden administration's illegal rewrite and hijacking of Title IX not prevent discrimination based on sex, but it mandates it. What's more, the executive branch does not have the authority to make a law only Congress does.

RIDE knows this, yet still threatens school districts in Rhode Island if they dare not comply. The school committee's proposed revision to this policy will keep boys out of girls' bathrooms and locker rooms and the possibility of boys competing against girls athletically, outlaw boys [from] rooming with girls on overnight field trips, [outlaw] the compelled speech of mandatory pronoun use, and ensure that parents are informed if their child presents to socially transition in school.

All of these proposed changes make sense for all kids and families. As these children do not belong to the state or the school until they turn 18, they are the sole responsibility of their parents. I am sympathetic to those who are confused [about] their sexual identity and want them to get the mental health counseling they need outside of school. However, no matter how much a boy wants to be a girl, dresses like a girl, thinks he's a girl or acts like a girl, he will never be a girl. Never. Biden's policy rewrite as well as RIDE's adherence to it are blatant attempts to take advantage of a vulnerable population and destroy the family unit. This district and all other districts must not comply. Say. “No.” Tell this administration and RIDE to shove it - that we know what's best for our town and our kids. This policy revision will make certain that all of Westerly's kids get the safety and privacy they all need and deserve. The next stop is every school district in Rhode Island.

Ryan Fontaine: I am here representing Thundermist Health Center as its trans education and policy specialist. For those of you who may not be familiar, Thundermist is a federally qualified community health center with locations in Woonsocket, West Warwick, and Wakefield. Thundermist presently serves over 62,000 patients. Statistically, that's one in 18 Rhode Islanders with patients who come from every zip code in our state. In 2015, Thundermist became the first in Rhode Island to establish a dedicated program for transgender health, which today is the largest in the state serving over 2,100 patients.

We're here this evening to express concern over the draft of the transgender student policy that is being considered. It is understandable why many people may read through the draft and conclude it is a sound policy in the best interest of transgender, non-binary, and gender-diverse students in the town of Westerly. Shrouded in the language that seems to be positive on the surface is the draft's true intent of forcibly outing transgender students without regard for their well-being or their rights in the case of students aged 18 and over - and preventing Westerly Schools from taking steps to best support transgender students. Just as significant as what is written in the draft is what is left out. This draft is missing statements that affirm transgender students' access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities consistent with their gender while addressing athletics. The draft leaves out an affirmative statement that students will be allowed to participate in interscholastic sports consistent with their gender in alignment with the Rhode Island Interscholastic League rules.

This draft is missing an overall affirmative statement that students would be allowed to participate in school activities consistent with their gender. Now, I could continue, but there's only so much time that I'm willing to take up tonight. The draft appears to be based on the existing protocol that has been in place in Westerly for many years. The existing protocol addresses, in detail, all the points required in regulations set out by the Rhode Island Department of Education, and the existing protocol ensures that transgender students will have the ability to participate in school life on equal terms as their peers. The proposed draft is neither - while creating areas of conflict for Westerly Schools. Rather than spending more valuable time working over another draft, there is a straightforward solution available and that is to adopt the existing protocol as district policy.

Rose Van Dover [Westerly resident]: I don't have anything written down and I'm not educated in all the aspects of this, but I do know this: Boys don't belong in girl's locker rooms, bathrooms, or any of the above. You're a boy, you're a boy. The question I have to ask the council is this: When some young girl gets raped in the bathroom or the locker room because you all put this RIDE policy in place, are you going to be able to sleep at night? Because I don't think I could, to be honest with you. I think it's shameful and I think it is - I can't even believe that I'm standing here having to say these things to you. I mean, don't you have children? Do you want some boy in a bathroom with your daughter?

It doesn't make any sense to me because I sure as all heck wouldn't. I don't care if you have a mental illness. That's what we need to be looking at, not allowing these boys into the girls' bathrooms. But what is the mental problem? What happened here? And I can't help but think that it's from the indoctrination starting way back when and it's happening now where all these children are being indoctrinated to think that this is okay and this is the norm. Well, it is not the norm and it is not right. We are confusing our children and when you confuse them, you can control them. And that's what this is all about. I can't help but think for one minute and I'm not saying all of you here are doing this, but this is wrong and you know it's wrong.

Like I said, I can't even believe we're sitting here having this discussion because you're going to lose more kids out of your school. After all, parents aren't going to put up with it. They're going to - they may not say anything. They may not come up here and say anything because they're worried that their child is going to pay the price from some teacher or some other kid in school harassing them because they're not for this. But you are losing students. We should be worried about our grade point average, which is in the toilet. It's in the toilet. We should be ashamed of ourselves. And here we are worried about some dude being in some girl's bathroom. Come on, please, for the love of God, open your eyes. This is wrong. And you know it's wrong. Vote no.

Jasmine Roy [Moms for Liberty]: I believe that protecting our children is of the utmost importance. There is confusion within this generation regarding whether they have a girl or boy inside them or outside of them, and I think that the place to discuss this is at home with the parents. I believe that the parents are the primary caregivers of the children, although children do spend a lot of time in school. I give credit to the teachers and the people who do care for them while they are in school, but I do not believe that it is their place to decide to keep things from the parents. That is what Moms for Liberty stands for. We stand for the protection of children and the protection of parental rights in education. This is not a fight, this is not a battle. This is not he said, she said, or vice versa. This is not about someone expressing themselves. This is about getting an education.

This is [about] preparing for extended education, college, [and] the future. Our children are our future. And if we confuse them, as the last speaker had just said, then what are we left with? We are left with dysfunction. We are left with children who do not understand who they are. We are left with children who may have regrets and then they can't go backwards and that further disrupts our human race and keeps us from evolution. If we make our children sterile, if we follow these transgender policies, it's only going to get worse. And the rift between the human race and people in general is going to become a crevice instead of a rift. I do hope that you take into consideration the fact that boys should not be in girls' sports. They shouldn't be in locker rooms, they should have separate places.

And if you feel like you're a girl, I don't know what to tell you. You should use the boys' bathroom if you have a penis. I'm sorry. And vice versa. I hope that you guys will consider this. This is not my school district, but I am a part of Washington County Moms for Liberty, so I do stand here in consideration for the children.

Diane Goldsmith [Westerly Resident]: The first thing I have to say is no matter what people say, transgender people exist. They exist in reality. They are who they are. They are not mentally ill. They are not part of the DSM 3, 5, 7 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) whichever number we're up to now. They are our students. They are parents, they are people in our community and they are not here. And the question is why are they not here? Why are they not standing up? Because it's scary to do that. It is scary to hear people tell you that who you are is not real, that you are sick, that you are mentally ill. I'm not trans, but I'm a lesbian. And trust me, I have heard every single one of these things said to me in my lifetime, every one of them. It's fear and it's hatred and it's awful.

If you truly care about students and truly care about what you say about creating a safe environment for all students, then you take seriously the fact that [the term] “all students,” includes gender diverse students, gay and lesbian students, transgender students, students who are questioning, and students who are trying to figure out who they are. And yes, every one of those students could be helped by supportive and loving families. But I will tell you - if one of these people was my mother, would I come out to them? Not in a single minute because what I am hearing is hatred, hatred, hatred for who I am...

Members of Moms for Liberty interrupted. The Chair shut them down.

Robert Cillino: Please don't. No. Excuse me. Point of order. Excuse me. Do not interrupt the speaker at the podium. Thank you.

Diane Goldsmith: One of the things that is very different about being LGBTQ is that we grow up in families that are not like us. If you're Italian, you grew up in an Italian family or Portuguese, or whatever, you grew up with the same culture. You grew up with people who love their culture, that's a generality. I know that if you're adopted and there are some other exceptions - you have people around you who bring you up with a feeling of security and safety for the culture that you're in. If you're LGBTQ, you do not have that. You grew up with parents, however loving, who do not understand, really and truly, what you're going through because they did not. You grow up not knowing how your parents are going to accept you, and even if you have the most loving and caring parents, coming out to them is one of the most frightening things you can do.

I know. I've done it and I've talked to many kids. If you do not understand this, you do not understand that there are transgender kids who try to kill themselves and succeed. There are transgender kids thrown out of their homes and become homeless, and transgender kids who face violence in their families. A policy that forcibly outs children without their consent creates an unsafe school for those students.

The policy that is proposed removes affirmative statements. I don't know who in this policy is supposed to call the parent and out the child, nor does the policy say whether the child is told about being outed ahead of time, nor does the policy take into account the possibility of divorced parents with different viewpoints, nor does it take into account that the child might be out to one parent and not the other - many, many contingencies, nor does it tell you who's going to pick up the phone, what sort of training the [inormant] is going to have, and how they're going to deal with the child. None of that is explained in this policy.

I find it fascinating that not once in this conversation do we talk about girls transitioning to boys. It's always about boys transitioning to girls. The whole issue of sports and protecting women in sports is what kept women from running marathons. It kept women with only three dribbles when I had to play basketball. It kept women from the Little League. We are not protecting girls with the policy proposed here. We are not.

Laura Carnahan [Westerly resident]: My children grew up in this town. I hadn't planned on speaking, so if I'm not well-informed, I apologize. I believe that the policy most recently brought up hasn't been assessed with research and documentation to support it. Am I correct on that? Could someone answer me?

Robert Cillino: We cannot have discourse back and forth. Sorry.

Laura Carnahan: Okay. Then what I want to say is that I have worked with transgender people. I have worked with people transitioning over the 30 years that I worked for American Airlines. In none of those situations did I ever find that someone had a mental illness problem - they had a problem feeling they were born in the wrong body. That's not something that just happened to this generation. That's something that's been around since the beginning of time. If you go into history, if you go into Turkish history, Middle Eastern history, Asian history - trans people existed.

This isn't something about how the school operates. For people who are questioning their identity, I personally, as a taxpayer and a mother in this town, want lots of research and lots of dialogue before anything is changed from what the Rhode Island Department of Education states. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but if the Rhode Island Department of Education has set forth a certain guideline and you want to go against it, I want lots of research. I want lots of research to back it up and I want the research current.

Lori Wycall: I just want to thank everyone for coming up to the podium. I think it's important that everybody realize that this committee voted unanimously to work on writing our policy. This attachment to the agenda is a very rough draft. It was to initiate a conversation on how we want to move forward. I don't agree with everybody who came up to the podium, but we're going to have conversations about this and I appreciate all of your input.

About 90 minutes after public comment, the School Committee discussed the draft policy.

Robert Cillino: Our next item is the transgender protocol. Ms. Wycall, do you want to kick this off?

Lori Wycall: I had asked for this to be on [the agenda] so that we continue the conversation. This is a very rough draft policy. I don't think anybody's looking to just approve this as a draft and move forward to a second reading of it. I think that we can take - I don't know, I mean - I think that we talk about so much stuff at these meetings that has nothing to do with educating our kids that it's getting - I think we need more time to talk about it.

I think we need to - if everyone wants to read it, put some input into it. I mean, I don't know. Dr. Mark Garceau [Westerly Schools Superintendent] emailed us with a few things on it. I just didn't think that - I personally just do not agree with the RIDE policy. Everybody up here voted to write our own, so I thought that was where we wanted to go with it. I think everybody should take a look at that and then we can have it on the next agenda with some edits, adjustments, [and] things that everybody feels are important.

Committee member Guiseppe Gencarelli: I was at a conference today. It was about Title IX. There's a new law - new legislation - coming out, effective August 1st of this year, and the law supersedes any policy. So I think what we need to do is dive into the law and look at it because Title IX talks about transgender policy, it talks about transgender [and] it talks about LGBTQ students. There's a lot in there that is somewhat changing. I think we need to have an understanding of what that new law is saying because before we dive into this - my thinking is we table it until we have an understanding of the new law before we move forward.

Robert Cillino: Can you just expand on what about that? About the new law?

Guiseppe Gencarelli: Yeah, at the conference. Yeah. So I wrote some notes. So let me see. There are some changes from the previous legislation. A part of the changes include, I'll just list a few of the things that are changing. They're defining a lot of specific words within the law because I think in the previous law there were words in there and there weren't meanings to those words. There are going to be more specific definitions of some of these words. They talked about having live hearings. They talked about when there is harassment or some sort of case affirming - offering support [for] students from sex discrimination. They talked about how it prohibits discrimination against LBGTQ students and employees based on sexual orientation [and ]gender identity... That's the gist of some of the changes. There's more too. There's high school, pregnancy - there is a lot in this new law that's out and one that is coming. It's effective August 1st, I believe it's already out.

Mark Garceau, Ed.D.: It is out, but it becomes effective August 1st.

[Note: What Committee member Gencarelli is talking about is the new Department of Education Title IX Regulations from the Biden Administration which seek to ensure “that no person experiences sex discrimination, including sex-based harassment or sexual violence, in federally funded education.” You can read more here.]

Leslie Dunn: There are a couple of things that need to happen with this. The last time we talked about this, there was the idea of possibly workshopping this. Given what Mr. Gencarelli just said, and what we saw here, what worries me is that to keep putting this on the agenda without a path forward is baiting people on both sides of the issue to get emotional. It becomes high stakes. I fear that it's putting a lot of fear into people who are directly affected by whatever protocol or policy we have in place. If we workshop this and in that workshop, we look at whatever legal aspect comes in, and we get guidance from RIDE.

We also need to invite counselors, social workers, and the people who are directly having these conversations with students and families into the room because as Diane Goldsmith stated, what does it look like in practice when somebody has to pick up the phone and call home and say, “This is what's going on with your child. We want to discuss this with you?” I don't think we have the answers to those questions yet.

If we can sit in a room and talk through what we have in place and what is being proposed, get answers to those questions, and hear from the people who have to do this job, I think we can make an educated decision on what the next steps are. If it's done in a workshop and people come prepared with things, they might have questions about things they want to add in, and things that they may feel don't fit into the policy we want to put in place for our students. That's when we can move this forward.

And it doesn't just become an emotional thing, it becomes a practical step for us. What I fear the most, as I said earlier, is that if we have students who are either using this protocol or maybe they're trying to navigate what that next step is, I don't want to put any student or family in a position where they feel like they're unsafe in our school because the goal is to out them or change their perspective on what their next step might be. I'm all for us having productive dialogue, and this is a part of us being here, but we need to have the right people in the room to guide us to make a good decision so we don't end up putting a child in harm's way or doing something that will put us in a legal situation that we can't get out of.

Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy: We got this draft yesterday, and I'll be honest, I have not read the whole thing because I'm the type that needs to look at what we have in place. I would put this side by side with the current protocol and I would love to have a red-line version of the proposed policy so it shows us exactly what is different. I haven't had the time - in one day - to go through that. I know, and Joe, this is different now that you've said that something's taking place on August 1 - but I know that some other communities have developed their policy. I want to take a look and see what those policies are. I will do that.

We have to make sure that - I was glad also, Joe, that you talked about definitions and wording and what exactly does this mean? People come and talk about parent rights, but what if you don't have parents? What if you have a guardian or you don't have a parent? I want to be very careful because the reason we're elected is to take care of our kids - all of our kids. To Leslie's point, I don't think any of us have the perspective that we need to go in and blindly write this policy. I'm looking forward to the workshop.

Michael Ober [Westerly School Committee member]: I thought we'd be doing more in-depth and a workshop. It's an important policy. We all have points of view, and as we've heard, people in the public have points of view. Now that Joe has brought up the law changes, we should look at that. We may want to have more than one workshop on the policy as well. One thing I do want to make clear is that we're not changing or looking at changes to the policy because we believe there's something wrong with being transgender, that it's some sort of mental illness, or that we have to protect them or be protected from them. We are going to look at the situations that benefit anybody who has feelings on this issue - sports policy, bathroom policy, whatever. But people shouldn't be expecting that we're going to make it an issue [but] that we're doing this to protect people from other people.

Lori Wycall: I just wanted to say I'm up for - I would agree to do the workshop. I just can't believe that three changes - whether the wording was a little bit off - I mean, I think that's why I put it in front of everybody to have something to discuss.

My three main goals were to keep gender-specific restrooms and have accommodations for any student who does not want to use one of those bathrooms. We have that in the high school. So maybe we talk to the people who are implementing these processes - who aren't following the RIDE protocol currently, - and find out what they're doing and do it that way.

My second point was that for locker rooms and overnight field trips - because the way the protocol from RIDE reads, anybody can pick any place they want to stay. And that's not what I'm comfortable with.

The third point was, and I'm not - I look at it differently than calling it “outing kids.” I look at it as involving the parents and having the school work as a bridge of communication between the child and the parent, guardian, or caregivers - whatever the term is that we want to use. The point is [that] parents should not be left out of this conversation. Generally speaking, the people in the schools that are one-on-one with students are not qualified, any more than a parent might be, other than the fact that they're that child's parent to make these decisions with their kid. So I don't think that we should be allowing the schools to be hiding information about a child from their parents and if the child is a minor - and I know people disagree with my terminology, I disagree with your terminology - so there are going to be things that we have to disagree on.

And if I wanted to - I mean - I think a workshop is a good idea, but I can't believe we're at this stage where people are throwing a fit over parents being involved in decisions regarding their child's health, well-being, and identity. It's bizarre to me that we have to be having this conversation, but I'm willing to do it.

Leslie Dunn: To Ms. Wycall's point, I think we sometimes assume that every kid is going home to a place of love, that for every kid, the teacher can pick up the phone and say, “Oh, hey, this is what's happening at school today and come on in. Let's talk about what's going to be the next steps, how you feel, how your family feels.” That's not the case.

When we talk about having a workshop, it's not to say, “Don't talk to the parents, don't talk to the caregivers.” It's to say, “How does this look in practice?” If a kid comes forward and says, “Under no circumstance can I call home and say this,” we have to understand what that conversation looks like because I believe in the protocol that existed. It said there's the intention of getting to a point where the student can have that conversation and it was broken out based on age and different pieces.

I don't have a good grasp on what that sounds like. What are the social workers saying? What are they going to tell the child about possibly having that conversation? And if there truly is some type of safety threat, how are they identifying that threat to say, “We need to escalate this. Does there need to be an intervention to do this?” It's not about hiding anything. It's about making sure that we are not putting a child in an even more dangerous situation when they're trying to navigate something. The goal is to get them to a place where they can have that conversation, but giving them the tools and making sure we have the right support to say, “We want to be a part of this discussion to get everybody on the same page.”

That's why we must look at this as something we need to workshop. I don't think it's a one-and-done. We can't just sit in a room one time because I feel like there are a lot of questions. As I said, if we do this the right way, it's a pat on the back for everybody, but if we do this the wrong way, it is going to be wrong and it is going to be a stain on this committee. The sad reality is it could lead to somebody being hurt and we have to cross all of our t's, dot all of our i's, put the right people in the room, and talk through...

Robert Cillino: I think Ms. Dunn says it so eloquently, she does such a great job of saying things. Any more knowledge we can get on this, to have the right people in the room. Some of the right people to have in the room are parents as well. We need to have people on both sides of the aisle on this and see what we can come up with that's going to hopefully protect all students. That's all everybody wants, it's just we can never agree on how to get there.


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