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Debate continues over proposed LGBT school policies

Apr 11, 2016

Credit Quinn Dombrowski/ Flickr

In the two months since the Michigan Board of Education put together its draft guidelines for how schools can support LGBT youth, the purely-optional policy suggestions have become a statewide battleground.

On one side, you’ve got advocates who feel the proposals would give schools a much-needed model for basic human decency towards students, especially transgender youth.

And on the other, there are conservative columnists, lawmakers and others who feel the guidelines represent a radical leftist agenda that would endanger kids and cut parents out of their children’s lives.

So, Tuesday’s meeting should be interesting.

Thousands comment on LGBT school policies

It’s the first State Board of Education meeting since the draft proposals went up online for public comment in March. Already more than 8,000 comments have been submitted.

Board President John Austin says they created the document as a way to help the many schools that were looking to the state for guidance about LGBT-related policies.

The draft guidelines suggest schools call transgender kids by their chosen names and pronouns, even if they haven’t been legally changed yet – and to give those students the “right to decide when, with whom, and to what extent to share private information."

"When contacting the parent/guardian of a transgender or [gender non-conforming] student, school staff should use the student’s legal name and the pronoun corresponding to the student’s assigned sex at birth, unless the student or parent/guardian has specified otherwise," the document suggests. 

The proposals also encourage schools to allow trans students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that fit their gender identity, rather than offering staff or single-stall restrooms as their only option.

Fierce opposition from the right

The Detroit News columnist Ingrid Jacques wrote a piece wondering why the board seemed so preoccupied with LGBT issues and granting those students "special favors." 

The Daily Caller suggested the proposals intentionally remove parents from their kids' lives at school, creating a Wild West situation where "a boy named 'Jake' could become a girl named 'Jane' at school, seemingly without his parents ever knowing."

The Daily Caller suggested the proposals intentionally remove parents from their kids’ lives at school, creating a Wild West situation where “a boy named ‘Jake’ could become a girl named ‘Jane’ at school, seemingly without his parents ever knowing.”

And State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, says he plans to introduce a bill blocking the proposals from ever being adopted by a school: his bill would prohibit transgender kids from using the bathroom that fits their gender identity, if it might possibly be occupied from other students.

LGBT advocates call for supporters to weigh in

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Michigan has sent out emails encouraging supporters to leave positive comments on the board’s proposals online. Equality Michigan has done the same.

And student-led groups like Riot Youth – which is part of the Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor – are traveling to Lansing to show their support for the draft policies at Tuesday’s meeting.  

“When we are able to go up there and talk, it’s easier for those people to look at us – and it’s harder for them to say, ‘No, we don’t want you to use that restroom,’” says Carina Gold, a high school senior in Ann Arbor. “And even the Board of Education: We want them to know that we support their decision to go ahead with these guidelines, and we hope that they make it through [to being finalized.]”

"When we are able to go up there and talk, it's easier for those people to look at us – and it's harder for them to say, 'No, we don't want you to use that restroom.'

Gold says she’s helped organize a student survey across several Washtenaw County high schools, polling LGBT youth about their experiences at school. And the results, she says, taught her that “a lot of these youth are being harassed at school and at home … it was startling.”

“It’s ridiculous that all of these people in power are trying to tell youth that they shouldn’t be able to feel safe in their schools. And it makes my heart hurt.”

As for the State Board of Education, President John Austin has given interviews emphasizing the need for inclusive, safe schools for all kids.

Meanwhile, the board has extended the public comment period through May 11. And President Austin says even then, the board will likely continue to “modify” the policies and hear from additional “stakeholders” before even considering a vote.

The board’s meeting on Tuesday starts at 9:30 am and will be held at the John Hannah Building in downtown Lansing.