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State school board gets an earful on LGBT policy

Shawn D. Lewis, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — The State Board of Education faced a torrent of criticism Tuesday from Republican lawmakers, parents and others opposed to a proposed draft policy that would set voluntary guidelines for how public schools should accommodate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Teresa Severy, a counselor from DeWitt Public Schools, speaks during a State Board of Education hearing on LGBT guidelines in schools.

More than 120 people spoke during an hours-long public comment session Tuesday afternoon, with supporters saying the policy would make LGBT students feel more accepted at school. The proposed guidelines include referring to students by their preferred names and pronouns and allowing them to use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the gender they identify with.

Opponents of the draft policy said it would cause confusion among children. Some said it would endanger their safety.

“Girls should go to the girls’ bathroom and boys should go to the boys’ bathroom,” said Brenda Battle-Jordan, a school board member for the Westwood Heights district near Flint. “Just remember that whatever you do, it trickles down to us. I just hope you get this right.”

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

“Kids don’t get to make those choices,” Battle-Jordan said. “We don’t want lawsuits and we don’t want this going on.”

But William Koontz told the board he supports the recommendations. He said his transgender son, who attended the former Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, was abused as a child — mostly by adults.

“Kids teased my kid about his sexuality, but adults chased him out of the bathrooms. Whatever you do to protect the kids, you’re doing God’s work,” he told the board.

Three Republican lawmakers — Rep. Phil Potvin of Cadillac, Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton and Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba — asked the board to apply the brakes on the controversial draft policy during remarks earlier Tuesday.

It’s unclear when the board may vote. Even if the recommendations eventually win board approval, no school would be required to adopt the model policy.

While the lawmakers spoke, about 100 opponents of the proposal rallied outside the Hannah Building.

According to Casperson, school districts can handle the issue without state guidance.

“We have schools that dealt with it and have been very successful. They have parental involvement and consider the safety of all children. It would be wise for board members to talk to folks who have had success,” Casperson said. “This (policy) seems pretty aggressive and you cannot carve parents out of it. I would like you to reconsider.”

Colbeck, who has called the policy “social engineering,” expressed concern that it is too broad. “I urge you, do not approve it,” he told the board.

Some Michigan school districts have already adopted policies similar to the guidelines proposed by the state board.

In April, for example, 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.

Outside Tuesday’s hearing, evangelical Christian pastors led a series of prayers, a rendition of “Amazing Grace” and criticized “devastating” provisions of the proposal.

“I pray you’ll help them see the errors in this thing, Lord, the confusion that it creates, the violation, Lord, of the rights of so many of our children,” said Pastor Gene Haymaker of Marantha Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant.

Many in the crowd had traveled to Lansing by bus in hopes of testifying before the Board of Education, but they gathered outside when the hearing room reached its 140-person capacity.

“Moral values begin with affirming male and female distinctions,” said Jason Georges, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Corunna. “When education renounces this fact, education becomes poison.”

Stella Shananaquet and her transgender son, Shane, hoped to testify in support of the draft policy proposal but were stuck waiting in the ground-floor lobby when the hearing room reached capacity.

“I want to be treated like every other student,” said Shane, 13, who was born female but identifies as male, a transition he made a year ago. “I just want to use the bathroom. I want my name to be used.”

Shane, a ninth-grader at Adrian High School in Lenawee County, said officials there allow him to use the male bathroom, and his classmates have generally been accepting.

“It’s high school,” he said. “Some people are pretty ignorant, but it’s all right.”

Adrian Public Schools Superintendent Bob Behnke joined Shane and his mother in Lansing for support. While he was not there in his official capacity as a superintendent, Behnke said schools are “absolutely” seeking guidance on transgender policies and compliance with federal funding requirements.

“We have a big need for clarity, because there’s so much ambiguity at this point on how can we best work with parents on both sides of the issue to make sure our kids are safe,” he said.