LGBT policy storm

May 1, 2016

Michigan is finding itself in the center of a storm over policy recommendations relative to LGBT students that have been developed by the Michigan Department of Education and the Board of Education.

The proposed guidelines, entitled "Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Students," would be optional for school districts to implement, if approved by the board. However, those opposing the proposed guidelines accuse the board of overstepping its role by promoting policies some claim are an attempt at social engineering that places students in harms way and subverting the rights of parents. Meanwhile, local school districts say without a formal policy in place regarding transgender students, most schools work with students and parents on a case-by-case basis.

Citing higher rates of harassment, bullying, suicide and missed days of school among LGBT students, the state Board of Education's recommendations include measures to foster acceptance of transgender students.

"The department of education and the board of education had been approached by school districts in the state that were looking for some guidance, outreach and help on how to deal with LGBTQ students. At that request, the department and board worked collaboratively to come up with guidance," said Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. "They are not requirements. It's guidance that is optional for districts that want and are seeking guidance and want to support students."

Included in the guidelines are recommendations for school districts to allow transgender students to participate in sports and other activities in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their biological sex; the use of gender-neutral dress codes that don't restrict clothing choices on the basis of gender; additional staff training; and the encouragement of respect for human and civil rights of all people, including those who are LBGT, across the curriculum. 

However, the guidelines have been met with strong opposition from parents, politicians and others who say the guidelines are lopsided, going too far to protect LGBT students while infringing upon the rights of other students and parents. 

The recommendations that have received the most attention are those suggesting transgender students be permitted to use the restroom and locker rooms of the gender of which they identify, rather than their biological sex. The guidelines also recommend districts allow transgender students to use different gender names without gaining permission from a parent or guardian first.

"I'm firmly opposed to these guidelines, which are framed in protecting from danger these children who have various gender identities, but it goes way beyond the scope of the safety of these children and into social engineering and advocating for calling them one name in front of children and another in front of parents," said state Representative Jim Runestad (R-White Lake). "In my view, it violates the rights of other students. I think it's a policy rife with potential abuse, from boys in particular, who may want to take advantage of this."

Introduced in February, the state Board of Education was to consider the guidelines at its May 10 meeting. However, that date has been pushed back for at least another month as the Michigan Department of Education extended the public comment period on the guidelines for at least another 30 days, following a request by Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant).

"They agreed to push it back 30 days," said a spokesman for Cotter. "There are a couple of individual lines and recommendations that suggest schools allow children to change their name in the school database and designated gender to go into any locker room or bathroom. It also says parents aren't notified because students can make decisions on their own.

"We haven't gotten a good explanation of where it came from or the motivation behind it. Part of the reason we wanted more time was to figure out what they are trying to accomplish."

As of April 13, more than 8,600 comments on the guidelines had been left at everyvoicecountsmi.org, a forum hosted by the Michigan Department of Education. 

"I have a trans-female child (who looks like a female and presents as a female)," a parent (Cindy Rousch-Cook) wrote. "If she were to have to use the 'boys' bathroom, I think it cause [sic] way more issues than her using the female bathroom. People need to remember that a child who goes into a bathroom needs to 'go to the bathroom.' They are no more a threat than anyone else."

Some commenters took to quoting Bible scriptures in their comments to defend their belief and opinions, while others said there are already rules in school that are intended to protect against bullying. Others refer to the guidelines as rules or legislation, or say they are concerned that such voluntary guidelines will become law. The site has come under some criticism because the comment process allows individuals to post multiple comments and is unable to verify who is actually posting.

"The gay/lesbian community in the school setting is a MINORITY not the majority! They are boys and girls, period. These facilities should remain separate!" a Michigan parent identifying herself as "Dottie" commented on the website. "These gender confused young people may be harassed in restroom/locker room, but so are the geeks, the unpopular, the fat kids, the 'ugly kids,' etc."

Meanwhile, the Michigan House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee on Education in March 2016 cut $24,500 out of the Michigan Department of Education's budget for travel reimbursement for the state board, possibly as a punitive measure. That measure was upheld on April 19, by the House Appropriations Committee by a party-line vote, which included Birmingham-Bloomfield Republican, Rep. Mike McCready. 

On March 31, state Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) announced he would introduce a bill that would thwart the most controversial components of the guidelines by requiring all Michigan students to only use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their birth gender.

"It's hard to believe that a state board, which is clearly out of touch with Michigan residents, got assistance from equally out of touch unelected bureaucrats, to develop such a document to fundamentally change Michigan's public education system without the public's prior knowledge or consent," Casperson said. "In the pursuit of social justice, this so-called draft guidance document created numerous problems, from the elimination of parental authority and notification, to threatening student safety and beyond. My bill would stop this policy dead in its tracks."

Casperson further said his bill would recommend students who don't identify with their biological sex would be accommodated if the student has written consent from a parent or guardian, but wouldn't permit those students to use restrooms of the opposite sex. Instead, the student would be referred to single-occupancy restrooms, staff facilities or "other reasonable accommodations."

Democratic House leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills, Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Pontiac, Sylvan Lake), said such a bill would make life more difficult for students who may already be struggling with gender issues.

"I encourage Senator Casperson to focus on adequately funding schools and improving academic achievement instead of picking on kids who are often bullied already," Greimel said.

The bill, which had yet to be introduced by mid-April, would make Michigan among a handful of states that have passed legislation opposed to anti-discrimination laws, if enacted. Similar laws have been passed in Tennessee and Arkansas. Most recently, North Carolina passed a law that requires public schools and agencies to segregate bathrooms by biological sex on someone's birth certificate, and prohibits any city or county from creating new anti-discrimination laws.

North Carolina's law was passed in response to a Charlotte city ordinance that would have outlawed discrimination against LBGT people. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said the ordinance conflicts with the state's tradition of privacy and equality. Since the North Carolina law was passed in February, several corporations, businesses, entertainers and cities across the country have refused to do business with the state and passed travel bans to North Carolina.

"Royal Oak supports equality, and in keeping consistent with the values of our community we will not spend public money in states that are actively undermining and rolling back the basic human rights of their citizens," Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison said. "It's important that cities like ours send a message to leaders in North Carolina and across the country that all people deserve equal protections under the law, and that we stand in solidarity with the LGBT community in opposing discrimination."

Royal Oak City Council on Monday, April 11, unanimously approved Ellison's proposal to prohibit the city from using public resources to fund, sponsor or in anyway support nonessential travel to the state of North Carolina. 

In response to North Carolina's law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of North Carolina, Equality NC and Lambda Legal are challenging the law in federal court. Meanwhile, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced he wouldn't defend the constitutionality of the new law.

"Not only is the new law a national embarrassment, it will set North Carolina's economy back if we don't repeal it," Cooper said. "And that means there will be a negative impact on innocent people who work hard every day and pay taxes. They don't deserve to lose money because of this. They deserve better."

Jay Kaplan, who works on the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Legal Project and is a member of the workgroup that created Michigan's proposed school guidelines, said it appears Casperson's yet-to-be introduced bill will focus on public schools, while the North Carolina law goes further. Still, he said, such legislation in Michigan would raise questions about equal protections under the Constitution, as well as districts that receive money through federal Title IX funding.

"We have great concerns with what has been mentioned, but if it indeed would pass, then I believe there are some serious legal issues and we would be looking at it," he said. "It raises issues of sexual discrimination, and that would be a basis for a legal challenge against a law like this."

Michigan School Board President John Austin, who serves as director of the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas Foundation and former director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative for the Brookings Institution, said he believes similar laws in Michigan would be harmful for the state's economy, as well as students.

"Transgender students have rights and are to be acknowledged under our civil rights laws," he said. "Looking at what is happening in North Carolina, it's very bad for the state and its economic future. It won't help attract talent into the state by saying we aren't supportive and we won't adhere to anti-discrimination measures.

"I hope Michigan joins the party that says LGBT people not only exist, but they have the same rights as others, and we should embrace and celebrate them here in Michigan, not chase them out of the state. That's a recipe for us to be a backwater state."

Further, Austin said there's no doubt that the need to help LGBT students exists.

"We have almost nine percent of our kids in public schools (that) are gay, and more transgender students being comfortable with coming out," Austin said. "Those kids have significant learning challenges in terms of health risks. They are four times as likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to skip class. The need is out there to help these kids get a great education. It can be done if schools can create an environment that is welcoming and supportive."

Data from the 2015 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey found about 8.4 percent of high school students in the state are lesbian, gay or bisexual. The survey found students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) are nearly three times more likely to be injured or threatened with a weapon on school property, with more than 40 percent reporting being bullied on school property. 

According to national studies, about 26 percent of transgender students were physically assaulted in school in the past year because of their gender expression. Overall, LBGT students who are bullied and harassed are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, feel excluded from the school community and experience lower academic achievement and stunted educational aspirations.

Findings from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, determined that Michigan schools weren't safe for most LGBT secondary school students. Additionally, the study found that many LGBT students in Michigan didn't have access to important school resources, such as having a curriculum that is inclusive of LGBT people, history or events, and were not protected by comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment school policies.

The GLSEN study found about nine in 10 LGBT students have been verbally harassed in the past year due to their gender expression, or the manner in which they represent or express gender to others, often through their name, pronouns, behavior, clothing, haircut activities, voice, mannerisms or other distinctive markers of gender. About 53 percent of LGBT students have been physically assaulted, with 54 percent of transgender students stating they don't feel safe enough that they can report incidents to school authorities.

Rochester Hills Public Schools spokeswoman Lori Grein said while the district doesn't have a specific policy regarding LGBT students or restrooms, she said the district strives to treat all students equally.

"We treat all of our students fair and equally, and that won't ever change. Inclusiveness is very important," she said.

In regard to the state's proposed guidelines for school districts, Grein said the district is waiting for official guidelines to be released before commenting.

"Out of respect for the state, we want to see what they are putting out and use their guidance," she said.

Birmingham Public Schools is currently in the process of reviewing its student policies and making updates, said district spokeswoman Marcia Wilkinson.

"The current sexual harassment policy deals with and mentions sexual orientation, but it doesn't break it down," she said. "We deal with each case individually to protect the student's confidentiality and work on a one-on-one basis."

Bloomfield Hills Schools spokeswoman Shira Good also said the district doesn't have a formal policy regarding LGBT students and bathrooms, but the district has a Global Education Team in each school, which was born out of work surrounding global education, inclusion and equity.

"For example, the high school team recently decided to outfit all graduating seniors with black caps and gowns, for gender equality," she said. "In the past, boys and girls were split between purple and black. Now, each graduate will wear black. This is just one example of our GET work across the district."

As for bathrooms and locker rooms, Good said the new high school bathrooms are, for the most part, single toilet facilities that both men and women staff share. She said the district is conducting an internal dialogue surrounding student restroom use and how they may best address any future concerns or requests.

"We know it's not about 'if' a student will ask – it's when – and we would like to be better prepared for those conversations and decisions," she said.

Christine Barnett, assistant superintendent of human resources and labor relations for the Bloomfield Hills district, said the district's universal code of student conduct is a board of education policy adopted to enforce policies protecting students from harassment, violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Specifically, she said the policy prohibits intentional conduct which would demean the sexual orientation or gender identity of another person.

Like other districts, Barnett said Bloomfield Hills addresses requests by LGBT students on a case-by-case basis.

"The district administration involves the student's family and works with the family to arrive at an accommodation that is acceptable to the student and his or her family," she said. "If the district is able to do so, accommodations are provided based on the individual student's needs and requests Such accommodations may include referring to a student by his or her chosen name and gender, changing unofficial student records, such as a yearbook, and allowing the student to use the bathroom of the identified gender."

While Barnett said the district will review and consider the state guidelines when they are finalized, she said the district will "ultimately determine and approve the district policy."

Farmington Public Schools, which recently made headlines for its acceptance of a transgender student, doesn't have a formal policy outside of its non-discrimination policy that applies to all students, said Naomi Khalil, director of instructional equity for the district.

"In conjunction with Title IX law, we address each one on a case-by-case basis," she said. "We have an internal group of people working to make a guidance project for procedure, but we allow Title IX and policy to guide that. They are working on that for counselors who took the lead on this so they have something to refer to."

Khalil said the district has had seven to 10 requests by gender transitioning students in the past few years.

"We do like to have a proactive approach, not reactive," she said. "A lot of districts like to wait until something happens, then react."

Bill Good, spokesman for Ferndale Public Schools said that's not the case in his school district; still, the district doesn't have a formal policy regarding transgender students.

"We don't have a lot of written policies, just because Ferndale is so awesome and welcoming, not to sound too Lego Movie-esque," he said. 

Ferndale Schools Superintendent Blake Prewitt said the board has a standard policy, but takes requests on a case-by-case basis.

"It hasn't been a problem. We have been very accommodating," he said. "Some students were interviewed the other week, and they said they feel very accepted here. It really hasn't been an issue here. We have a number of transgender students."

Prewitt said students, like much of the city, is an inclusive community.

"Our board president is a member of the LGBT community," he said. "As we talk to students, they love that its an accepting district. They don't experience bullying or anxiety if and when they come out. It's a very easy, normal process for out students. That's the environment we created over the course of time."

Lilianna Angel Reyes, youth program manager with Affirmations in Ferndale, said the organization works with many metro Detroit schools to establish student organizations or training for teachers and counselors.

"We usually see – and this goes back to capitalism – that those with more resources can pay for speakers. It doesn't mean other districts don't do anything, but it's easier for them to get funding. So, especially those in the inner city, they don't have as many initiatives or no money to put toward it. It's even more challenging for LGBT youth of color."

In regard to the state's proposed policy, Reyes said the guidelines are "amazing."

"We absolutely support it," she said. "What we are teaching the youth and schools is a best practice that most school districts incorporate," she said. "Everything we tell them is rhyming other federal policies. We say people should be be able to live their lives authentically. If I come to school and I want to be Bob, then I should be Bob and referred to as a he. Parents, teachers and schools that trump that don't allow a student to live as themselves."

Districts that don't provide equal protections for LGBT students could face problems in the future. While federal law regarding transgender rights has not been clearly defined by the highest courts, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has defined fair and equal treatment for transgender students in relation to rights in areas such as student names and pronouns, restrooms, privacy, school records, student safety and dress codes.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address transgender people, but at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals there have been cases that have said transgender people have been discriminated against and have protections under sex discrimination," ACLU attorney Kaplan said.

In early April, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights confirmed it was investigating Bedford Public Schools in Monroe County for possible discrimination against transgender students. A spokesperson for the office told mlive.com that the case is the only one of its kind in Michigan.

Rachel Crandall, executive director and co-founder of Transgender Michigan, is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in transgender issues. Crandall said she believes the Michigan Board of Education's guidelines are crucial for LGBT students.

"Especially regarding restrooms," she said. "Having children use the wrong restrooms, ones that don't really match who they are inside, it can be really traumatic. It really sets them apart from everyone else."

Under the state's proposed guidelines, the board of education recommends allowing students to use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity, which is considered a person's deeply held internal sense or psychological knowledge of their own gender, regardless of the biological sex they were assigned at birth. The policy recommends that alternative and non-stigmatizing options, such as an all-gender or single-user restroom should be made available to students who request them, but not presented as the only option. Any student who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of underlying reasons, has the right to access a single-user restroom.

The state's recommended guidelines are similar to GLSEN's model district policy on transgender and gender nonconforming students. However, the GLSEN policy recommends providing any students who want more privacy with alternatives, which could include a partition, curtain or private restroom or office. However, GLSEN states that requiring transgender students to use separate spaces threatens to publicly identify and marginalize the student and shouldn't be done unless requested by the student.

Crandall said she believes educating those opposing the proposed guidelines is key to providing protections to transgender students.

"Parents need to be educated to really understand (transgender people). Right now, the way they are thinking, it's like they are really not people like everyone else," she said. "When I talk to people about it, especially other transgender kids and adults, there are some things they felt shame about their whole lives. Unfortunately, singling them out adds to the shame."

Roz Keith is an Oakland County mother of a transgender child who attends the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. Now 17 years-old, she said her son, Hunter, has been supported by the school and other students.

"We've been lucky," she said. "He's just another kid."

Keith said the school was able to resolve the bathroom issue quickly and without any pushback.

"It's a conservative school. There are defined gender roles, and they are OK with Hunter identifying as male," she said. "There has been no pushback, where as in other communities that may be a problem. In large part, the Jewish community has been accepting."

She said the school accepted Hunter's name and gender identity prior to making a legal change.

"As we got into ninth grade, he asked if we could pick a different name and use boy pronouns," she said. "It took a while for him to be comfortable asking teachers to change things. The school called me and said, 'Don't worry about school, let's make sure he's OK.' They wanted to do everything they could."

Keith has since founded Stand With Trans, a non-profit organization supporting transgender individuals. Keith's mother also facilitates a parent support group twice a month, which includes a variety of kids from different schools.

"When they aren't being supported and feeling anxious and stressed about not being accepted, their grades suffer and academics are in the toilet," she said. "It's very difficult to be successful...When they are allowed to transition, they are much less likely to harm themselves or engage in risky behavior.

"The dynamic of the entire person changes, and it's so simple. It's just being loved and supported by parents and at school. With that, they are no more likely to succumb to depression than anyone else."

Lisa, a mother of a transgender child who asked not to be identified, said her son transferred from a public school district in Oakland County, due to bullying he was receiving at school. Adding to the problem, she said it was initially difficult to find a specialist in the area to work with her son.

"It was about fourth grade when he started making verbal comments, that he wished he was a boy and that he didn't fit in," she said. "I started to notice my happy child was becoming more depressed and angry, and that was heightened by 100 percent once he started middle school and puberty, and his body started changing in ways he didn't want it to. It was a very difficult and painful time for him and the rest of the family."

Rochester Hills counselor Dr. Don Sidelinker, who has focused on providing services for transgender patients for three decades, said he has worked with patients in their teens and as young as six years old.

"I have a procedure I follow. I have a 16-year-old patient I started counseling at 14, and I counseled him to wait until he had his name legally changed because the schools don't have to follow their request," he said. "That says to me that they are serious, not just saying 'I want to try it out.' And, I suggest they wait until they start hormones, so there is a medical standing that they are under supervision and in the process of transitioning. I also provide them with a letter saying they are in transition and need to use the bathroom... If a school authorizes the use of a bathroom without legal changes or therapy, that works for me too, but I don't see all schools being able to follow that."

Daniel Shumer, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Adolescent Gender Management Program at CS Mott Hospital in Ann Arbor, said once a child identifies as transgender, puberty becomes a difficult time for them.

"Their body starts developing in an opposite way than their gender identity," he said. "There has been an evolution on how to treat them. If a teen is in puberty and has a persistent gender identity disorder, you can use medication to suppress their puberty, and when they are older you can start cross hormones, meaning estrogen or testosterone, all in close contact with a mental health professional that has diagnosed gender dysphoria. We consider medications or start transitions if they are older."

Shumer said the protocol was developed in the Netherlands about two decades ago, and has been adopted across the country. From his personal perspective, Shumer said students transitioning tend to do better when they are in a supportive environment.

"Patients that come to see me are often struggling with anxiety, depression and feelings of rejection. When supported, I see how much better they do," he said. "It's helpful to affirm their identity. They start doing better in school and start getting better grades. I feel there has been a lot of progress in that area in the past few years, and I don't want to lose momentum."

Sidelinker said fears about students being at risk from transgender students using the same bathrooms as their peers are partially unfounded.

"The females transitioning to male aren't having problems. The boys don't care," he said. "The problem is coming from the female who is genetically a male. They are the ones having a problem."

However, he said the biggest problem for transgender students is typically the ignorance.

"The child does know," he said. "I've done biological research, and the brain is already sexed long before the baby is born. Once that happens, you can't change the brain. The brains of transexual people are different even from the earliest age, based on more than 2,000 children involved in one study. That's what I know, but everyone doesn't' know that.

"The problem is the ignorance of the adult, not the child."­ ­

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