Protecting the most vulnerable at school

May 1, 2016

Parents and some legislators up in arms about the Michigan Board of Education's proposed policy recommendations for how local districts should address concerns about transgender issues in their schools appear to be missing the point.

The recommendations, presented in a document – titled Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Students – provides, among other issues, guidance on how to address requests by transgender students to use restroom and locker room facilities and how to be addressed by names in accordance with their gender identity, rather than that of their biological sex at birth. Additionally, the guidelines suggest allowing such requests to be made without parental consent or knowledge in some cases.

Opponents have latched onto recommendations by the state board that are intended to protect students from family rejection or flat-out retribution and harm. However, claims that such student protections cut parents out of the loop are ignoring other recommendations that encourage district to work with parents. Specifically, the guidelines state that "parental acceptance and family support are key determinants of LGBTQ student health," and is strongly encouraged.

Although it's true the recommendations note the responsibility for determining a student's gender identity rests with the student alone, meaning a LGBT student has the right to make such requests without parental permission, such measures may be appropriate and necessary for students who face a very real response of rejection or harm from a non-supportive family. Nor does the board suggest such measures for elementary school students, as some may apparently believe.

The truth of the matter is, whether opponents choose to accept it or not, that the vast majority of parents of LGBT students are usually out of the loop far before they are aware their child has come out as LBGT. And most have been for years while their children are working to sort out their sexuality and/or gender on their own. In fact, it's typical for a LGBT student to come out to their close friends or a trusted person at school well before they tell their parents. Therefore, it makes sense psychologically for schools to provide a safe harbor to those who may face rejection, or in worse cases, homelessness, neglect or abuse

As far as concerns about privacy, we believe that a compromise can be reached on a case-by-case basis, as is recommended in the guidelines. Many schools already provide unisex restrooms for students and/or staff, which students may already use. Further accommodations should be made for any student that feels uncomfortable in a group locker room facility – not just LGBT students. Further, state and national statistics on the harassment and violence against LGBT students fly in the face of irrational fears that straight students would be harmed at the hands of transgender kids. They simply aren't the antagonists.

Lastly, those opposed to the guidelines should be reminded that they are simply recommendations, many of which local districts have already started implementing on their own prior to any state board involvement. Statewide guidance documents — which are already in place in California, Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Texas — not only take into consideration the well-being of students, but are drafted to be in accordance with federal regulations while transgender issues are sorted out in the courts. The guidelines serve to assist local school districts in balancing the rights of students who are at risk.

On a side note, we must voice our disappointment with the number of Oakland County legislators who failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on this issue, particularly that of Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Birmingham, Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills). While we understand LGBT issues are a hot-button for legislators that illicit some artful dodges from some who did respond, we believe the senator has an obligation to the communities he represents to acknowledge their concerns and be transparent when it comes to his views on issues. It's important to remember the press represents the voice of the people. It would be wise for all legislators, but especially Sen. Knollenberg, who has a track record of dodging the press, to remember that.

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