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North Kingstown High School seniors Olivia Wood, left, Grace MacKrell and Eliza Jensen are part of the school's "Students4Change" organization.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A group of North Kingstown High School students are tapping into a fervor for change and, more importantly, raising their voices to be heard on local issues that affect them and others.

The small, but vocal crowd of teenagers, are members of an unusual committee formed by previous students — they belong to a student-centered political action committee officially created two years ago.

“We do not affiliate with one political party,” said high school senior Grace MacKrell, president of the PAC, noting it is “more so based on the community issues at hand around us and what we as young adults and students care about.”

Two years ago, a couple of students created this official political action committee to question and support candidates for school board and town council elections. That group is now known as Students4Change and has a much broader mission, she said.

Olivia Wood, a student member and echoing the sentiments of others, said, “The PAC gave me the keys to educate myself on local issues, which has come to define a lot of my high school career.”  It is more than just being one-issue advocates, she and others noted.

The group of about nearly 20 students makes clear on their PAC website both their interest in public administration as well as political activism, a hallmark of democracy that they’ve learned about in various classes throughout their schooling.

“Students4Change is a political action committee comprised of an independent group of students who are engaged in local politics. Our mission is to encourage students and youth to become politically active members of society,” it says.

The PAC is also independent of North Kingstown High School oversight and is not a school activity, school officials maintain. But MacKrell said that “although we are not affiliated with the school, the whole group comes from NKHS. Talking about it with other students during the school day is one way to get them interested to join.”

Various forms of social media, including Facebook and Instagram, also figure into recruitment efforts, she said.

“The PAC also endorses various policies/proposals and supports candidates for local office who support the interests of students and youth in our town,” the students said in their online statement.

In part, they tap into the sound that has rung through the years of emerging young adults feeling they have been ignored and have not taken seriously by older adults, whether school administrators, town officials, parents and others around them.

“By providing a platform for ALL students and youth to come together and collectively support ideas, our goal is to enhance the role of students’ voices in our local government. We support bringing a collection of different ideologies together to form one collective voice for youth in our community,” they said.

Founded in 2020 by seniors Joe Vento and Jacob Cedor, it aimed to put support behind local candidates. However, that approach changed as other students became involved and wanted a more issues-based foundation, MacKrell explained.

Some of those issues have included a food drive, an LGBTQ flag distribution for community support, a mental health education fundraiser and candidate forums for those seeking local and statewide elective office.

Title IX recognition and information about it also became a topic that the group pursued, MacKrell said, noting that a school-wide assembly finally occurred earlier this year.

It happened just about the time controversy continued to erupt around former high school coach Aaron Thomas for doing “fat tests” on naked students. Last week he pled not guilty to charges of sexual assault and child molestation in connection to those tests.

Essentially, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Generally, it covers all aspects of the education program, including admissions, treatment of participants, and employment.

Olivia Wood said that she felt compelled to participate after attending school committee meetings and listening to citizens’ comments.

“I’ve been rendered speechless at many meetings,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that people from my town thought that learning about things like African American history and white privilege was shaming their white children for their race.”

“The first meeting I ever went to had to be cut short as the police were called, and I had to have someone walk me to my car. At other meetings, people have harassed me or screamed in my ear, and I’ve seen other students booed by grown adults,” she said.

In addition, the group also sought to be heard on the need for gender-neutral bathrooms in the high school, said Eliza Jensen, a North Kingstown High School student and PAC member.

“(It) took forever to be opened, once it did it was then closed for the majority of the school year. Luckily a new one was established, but there was so much drama over a bathroom,” she said.

“We are the ones attending the school and our voices feel often invalidated on how we want to make the school a better and safer environment for everyone,” Jensen added.

Recently the student PAC group encountered some criticism when it held a candidates’ forum.

Izzy Montini, a senior who graduated and is now at American University, helped to pull together the summer candidate information event.

“When we were organizing this event, our main goal was to be as non-partisan as we could,” she said, noting they invited every local candidate for School Committee, Town Council, and local state legislative seats for Senate and House of Representatives.

“Unfortunately, when we promoted our event on Facebook, we were met with hostility as people claimed we had already made endorsements for the 2022 election cycle, and that we were choosing to endorse only Democrats,” she said.

“This led to many Republicans withdrawing their RSVP. However, these claims were not true. We had not made any endorsements and it was important to the group that we could hear from as many candidates as possible before coming to a decision,” Montini said.

MacKrell said the candidate event eventually involved mostly Democrats and one Republican.

“We gave everyone an opportunity to participate in this forum, and all candidates got an opportunity to answer all questions asked,” Montini said.

As often found, politics and outspokenness go hand-in-hand. This student PAC is no exception.

“Too many adults still don’t listen to teenagers. I’ve seen it every single time the PAC gets involved in something,” Wood said.

“I’ve seen so many students booed when they speak at school committee meetings. I’ve seen administrators classify S4C members as simple ‘trouble-makers’ for attempting to address an issue that needs changing,” she said,

She noted that the high school newspaper last year was forbidden by administrators for writing about the Thomas matter or any other local contentious, political issues.

Acting School Superintendent Michael Waterman disputed that claim.

“We do not allow any Political Action Committees to operate in our schools.  The only editing that takes place (of the newspaper) is by the teacher or Student Services Office to ensure that the piece being written is based on research-based facts — unless it is an editorial — in which case we make sure it isn’t libelous,” he said.

“In speaking with the high school principal, she never blocked any articles related to these (Thomas and other political) matters,” he said. The acting superintendent also said school officials also listen to students’ concerns on a variety of issues.

Despite what Wood described as “incredibly disheartening” actions by some community members and school administrators, the group also has its supporters.

“So many adults in our community actually listen to, trust, and believe us, and that makes it all worth it,” she said.

“They see that we are literally the future, and never stop helping us prepare for our time to be in charge.  They see that we are capable right now, despite our budding lives, and let us use our voices. And they amplify them,” Wood said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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