The State Board of Education, already under fire for a proposed policy on addressing the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, on Tuesday faced hours of criticism and applause from many of the hundreds who traveled to Lansing to have their say.
It heard from opponents who said the policy would hurt, not help, students and could open the door for sexual predators to prey on students. Many — including three lawmakers — urged the board to reject the policy. But they also heard from supporters who said the guidelines are crucial to ensuring such students are safe in school.
“You passing guidance will actually save lives, young people’s lives,” said Beth Josephson, a guidance counselor at Okemos High School.
The board endured a marathon public comment period that began at 12:30 p.m. and continued into the early evening. So many showed up that the meeting room reached capacity and many were forced to wait in the lobby of the building that houses the Michigan Department of Education in Lansing.
The breakdown: 120 people spoke. Of them, 49 supported the policy, 67 were against and four people spoke on other topics.
That policy — which would be voluntary and not a requirement for schools to adopt — has been a lightning rod for debate since the Michigan Department of Education first brought it to the board during a meeting in March. The goal, state education officials have said, is to ensure that students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their identity (LGBTQ) have a safe and supportive school environment.
The policy would urge schools to do things such as providing professional development for staff on how to address LGBTQ issues; develop policies that protect LGBTQ students from harassment; support the creation of student-led clubs such as gay-straight student alliances; and provide support to families.
But many have strongly criticized the policy, particularly provisions allowing students to use restrooms and locker rooms that align most closely with their gender identity — or to provide alternate accommodations for transgender students. Others have taken issue with language allowing students to be referred to by the gender they prefer, whether their parents are aware or not.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston said the board won’t take action on the policy until August at the earliest. The official public comment period — which can be accessed via the web site www.everyvoicecountsmi.org — ends tomorrow afternoon. There were more than 500 comments by Tuesday evening.
Among those who came to express their opposition was Jazmine Early, who said she was representing hundreds of Sterling Heights parents.
“It takes parents’ rights away,” Early said.
Three lawmakers — Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac; Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton; and Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba — urged the board to reconsider the policy.
Potvin said the board is “wasting our time on a very minor issue. I’d like you people to reconsider what you’re really doing.”
Colbeck said he finds it personally concerning that the board is focused on LGBTQ issues when there are serious academic issues facing Michigan schools, such as statistics that show half of the state’s third-graders aren’t proficient in reading.
In reality, though, the board has been focused on those academic issues. Today’s meeting agenda includes an update on a broad effort to turn Michigan into one of the top 10 academically performing states in the U.S.
Colbeck said the board is “focused on social engineering,” and questioned the federal government’s role in shaping the proposed policy. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance in recent years making it clear that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects transgender students.
The MDE has said the move to adopt the policy came from local school educators asking for guidance. Schools would not be required to adopt the policy.
The board heard from young people like Isabelle Fessler, 13, of Canton, who said she attends a public school in Michigan.
“I am bullied every day and shoved up against the lockers for wearing a rainbow button on my backpack,” she told the board through tears. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for the open LGBTQ youth in my school.”
Mary Beno, a health consultant in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, said educators are eager to learn how to best address the issues.
“A small amount of guidance goes a long way in preventing expensive and unnecessary litigation and more importantly preventing undue stress on our young people.”
Doug Levesque of the Bible Nation Society, criticized the policy and said he plans to run for the State Board.
“What you call LGBTQ, we call immoral,” Levesque said. “The Bible calls that sodomy.”
Many of those in opposition cited Bible verses or religion in addressing the board. Several told board members that they’d face repercussions from voters if the board adopts the policy. Some said they don’t see the need for a specific policy on LGBTQ students when there is already an anti-bullying law in the state.
The board also heard from Casperson, who has said he’s planning to introduce legislation requiring Michigan students only to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their birth gender.
Casperson said two superintendents in his districts have told him they’ve already been dealing with these issues. They considered the safety and well-being of all students and made provisions for the students “when it came to the private space,” Casperson said.
“They’ve had success,” Casperson said. “I think it would be very wise for the board to consider talking to folks who have already dealt with this.”
Many schools indeed are dealing with these issues. Jennifer and Andrew Robinson of Portage talked to the board about their transgender daughter, who is four and will be entering kindergarten in the fall. That transition, they said, brings fears.
“We anxiously discuss the unanticipated hurdles she will face just for being who she is,” Jennifer Robinson said.
Some of those opposed to the policy said they’re concerned that allowing a boy, for instance, to use a girl’s bathroom would violate the rights and privacy of girls. Many took their fears even further, saying sexual predators will abuse bathroom policies intended to help transgender students. Boys, they said, will pretend to be transgender in order to get into the girls’ bathroom. But Nicole Ellefson of Williamston, the parent of a transgender son, said those are unfounded fears.
“Have you ever talked with a trans person? When they want to go to the bathroom, guess what they want to do? They just want to use the toilet,.” Ellefson said. “They don’t want to go in there and molest our little girls or molest our little boys.”
The state’s proposed policy on LGBTQ students
–Adopt and enforce policies that protect students from harassment, violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.
–Provide professional development opportunities on issues affecting LGBTQ students to all district staff and school board members.
–Support the creation of extracurricular student-led clubs, such as gay-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances in middle and high school.
— Provide appropriate and meaningful family engagement and support.
— Encourage respect for the human and civil rights of all people, including those who are LGBTQ, throughout the curriculum.
— Provide developmentally appropriate information about LGBTQ issues in school libraries and in student and faculty resource centers.
— Designate a building-level staff member who is knowledgeable about issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
In addition, the document offers this guidance for schools:
–School staff should address students by their chosen name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, whether or not there has been a legal name change.
–When requested, schools should make a good faith effort to change unofficial student records with the chosen name and appropriate gender markers to promote consistency among teachers, substitute teachers, school administrators and other staff.
–Students should be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, and alternative options such as an all-gender or single-user restroom should be made available.
–A student should not be forced to use a locker room that isn’t aligned with their gender identity. Locker room usage should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.