Schools address gender issues before state ruling

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

As the State Board of Education prepares Tuesday to revisit controversial gender-identity guidelines for public schools, some districts already are ahead of the curve.

Cecil Connelly says teachers at Ferndale High have accommodated his name change and wish to identify as a boy.

School officials say they are trying to meet the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in a changing social landscape. In many cases, that means quietly accommodating what students want to be called and which bathrooms they are most comfortable using.

Teachers in Ferndale Public Schools, for example, didn’t need a formal policy to call Cecil Connelly by his preferred name rather than his birth name.

A biological girl who identifies as a boy, Cecil, 16, prefers the pronouns “he” and “him.”

Teachers have been accommodating of the change, Cecil said. While those conversations have gone well, Cecil said the conversation with his Spanish teacher was especially important.

In a highly gendered language such as Spanish, pronouns aren’t just a preference. Cecil needed to make it clear that when he used male pronouns to describe himself, he wasn’t graded down for using the wrong words.

“In a school environment, everything’s fine,” said Cecil, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Ferndale High School. “Most of my classmates use my name and my pronouns. If my teachers are calling me by the name I prefer, my classmates follow along and call me that, too.”

Cecil said he’s dismayed by the adults “freaking out” over bathroom access, an issue that’s generated national controversy.

The state Department of Education in February presented to the State Board of Education a series of voluntary guidelines for making gay, lesbian and particularly transgender students feel more included. The most controversial proposal called for schools to let students use locker rooms and restrooms that are “in accordance with their gender identity,” creating a potential situation where a student who identifies as female but was born a male could use a female locker room.

The state board is set to meet Tuesday in Lansing, and residents are expected to discuss the recommendations during a public comment period set for 12:30-1:30 p.m. No vote is expected; the board is accepting public comments through Wednesday. Even if the memo eventually wins board approval, no school would be required to adopt the model policy.

Critics have blasted the recommendations because they do not require parents to be notified when students seek out alternative gender-related accommodations.

In April, the Ferndale Board of Education passed a resolution supporting the state recommendations. Superintendent Blake Prewitt stressed that the guidelines don’t prohibit the district from involving parents; rather, they allow educators to work with students on a case-by-case basis, depending on the family situation. The student’s safety and well-being is paramount, he said.

“No educator wants to exclude parents from the mix ... but it may take time to get there,” Prewitt said. “The end goal is you want the child to be able to talk to the parent, because you know the parent will eventually find out.”

Parent Mary Fulmer said Monday she applauds the Ferndale Board of Education for doing what she considers the right thing for LGBT students.

“Anything the school district can do to make those students feel welcomed is important for us to do,” she said. “I want the transgendered in my community to feel like they are a part of our school community and not to feel ostracized during the school day.”

Cecil said despite the district’s accommodations, he still isn’t comfortable enough to use the boys’ bathroom at school.

“If I were to go into the guys’ bathroom, it wouldn’t be like ‘Oh, I’m just going in there to mess around,’ ” Cecil said. “It’s ‘I gotta pee, I gotta leave.’ ”

Cecil Connelly, with classmate Jacob Reyes-Winowiecki, said he’s dismayed by adults “freaking out” over transgender bathroom access, now a national issue.

Ann Arbor Public Schools, with 17,104 students, quietly accommodates students who want to use a bathroom that doesn’t match their birth gender.

Each of the district’s high schools has a unisex bathroom. It’s the same arrangement offered by Grand Rapids Public Schools, which serves about 16,500 students.

When students express a concern regarding names and preferred pronouns, Ann Arbor schools works with them individually in what district spokesman Andrew Cluley called “a quiet, respectable way” that doesn’t draw unwanted attention.

That’s similar to what happens in Dearborn Public Schools, said spokesman David Mustonen, where “good common sense and sound judgment” stand in place of specific policies.

Detroit Public Schools, the state’s largest district with about 47,000 students, accommodates students on gender-identity issues, said spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

Nick Brandon, spokesman for Plymouth-Canton Public Schools, says that gender identity issues have popped up at every level from elementary to high school. Though there is no policy in place, the practice is for the district to call its 17,000-plus students by their preferred names and pronouns.

But state action will be needed for students to move entirely beyond their old identities, Brandon said.

Teachers can call students by their new names, and the school system can even change the name in its computers. But when it’s time for a standardized test, that old name pops up again, Brandon said.

The changing landscape on gender issues has caused a change in practice on graduation gowns, Brandon said, which used to be gender-specific — at one high school, boys wore blue gowns while girls wore white, and some students would request to wear the other gender’s color. Rather than continue that practice, its high schools each offer one color of gown to wear, Brandon said.

“Our actions prove we’re doing what we can to collaborate with students, families to make sure needs are met,” Brandon said. “But for this to gain consistency across the state, there needs to be decisions made at the state level and handed down to districts. In the meantime, we’re not sitting still on this issue.”

But competitive sports are one area where change is more complicated.

While girls competing on wrestling teams or football teams has been allowed in Michigan, the Michigan High School Athletic Association will not allow biological males to play girls’ sports, said Jack Roberts, executive director of MHSAA, a private nonprofit that regulates interscholastic athletics in the state.

Biological males playing girls’ sports means girls would “lose meaningful opportunities” to participate, as they are displaced on teams by boys who are on the whole bigger, stronger and faster, Roberts said.

Roberts said the MHSAA will not look to the state board for guidance, but to “a long line of court cases” that protect girls’ sports. Even the state board’s guidance, which says students should be able to play on teams according to their gender identity, notes that the MHSAA has the authority on such matters.

“Bathroom access is not a matter of competition,” Roberts said. “Scoring a basket is.”

While a school district like Ann Arbor would be free to let biological males who identify as girls compete in girls sports, Roberts said, it would run into two issues: finding competition at the local level, and not having the services of that player in postseason play, which is governed by the MHSAA.

“If the boy has just declared ‘I’m a girl,’ schools will protest, and the school may not have competition,” Roberts said. And in the postseason, if a player’s gender identity is “disputed by facts,” such as school records, government documents and medical documents, and there’s been no gender reassignment and no hormone therapy, the player would be barred by the MHSAA from competing.

“We’ve had boys who’ve wanted to play on competitive cheer and volleyball for years and years,” Roberts said, “but it’s never been allowed at the tournament level. Because of that, schools don’t allow it at the local level.”

Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.

From education board’s guidance on gender identity

Names and pronouns: School staff should address students by their chosen name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, regardless of whether there has been a legal name change. Upon request, the chosen name and gender should be included in the district’s information management systems, in addition to the student’s legal name.

Student records: When requested, schools should engage in reasonable and good faith efforts to change current unofficial student records (e.g., class and team rosters, yearbooks, school newspapers and newsletters) with the chosen name and appropriate gender markers to promote consistency among teachers, substitute teachers, school administrators and other staff. The Michigan School Code requires proof of identity and age for school entry (e.g., birth certificate, passport) but does not address changing names and gender markers in student records. Per communications with the U.S. Department of Education, the gender marker in the pupil’s official record should reflect the gender identity of the student regardless of what appears on the birth certificate.

Restrooms: Students should be allowed to use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity. Alternative and non-stigmatizing options, such as an all-gender or single user restroom (e.g., staff bathroom or nurse’s office), should be made available to students who request them, but not presented as the only option.

Locker rooms or changing facilities: Students should not be required to use a locker room that is incongruent with their gender identity. Locker room usage should be determined on a case-by-case basis, using the guiding principles of safety and honoring the student’s gender identity and expression. Some options include: 1) an adjusted changing schedule; 2) use of a private area in the facility (e.g., nearby restroom stall with a door, an area separated by a curtain, a physical education instructor’s office in the locker room); and 3) use of a nearby private area (e.g., restroom, nurse’s office).

Interscholastic sports: Students should be allowed to participate in interscholastic sports in accordance with their gender identity. Eligibility of transgender students in Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA)-sponsored postseason tournaments is governed by the MHSAA, subject to state and federal civil rights laws.

Source of excerpts: State Board of Education’s guidance on gender identity