Vote on transgender school policies delayed

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The Michigan Board of Education will not vote next month on a modified guidance proposal that would have acknowledged privacy concerns but still recommended schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

President John Austin had hoped to hold a vote at the board’s Aug. 9 meeting on a set of voluntary policy recommendations that underwent significant revisions after pushback from some parents and social conservatives, including several Republican state legislators.

That vote will not happen next month, the Michigan Department of Education announced Friday.

“I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Austin told The Detroit News, indicating board members need more time to review new language that some had seen for the first time this week. There may be additional modifications.

“I hope we will bring it forward in September, but we want to get it right. We want to provide clarity on what districts can do to create a safe learning environment for all kids, certainly LGBTQ kids, but also what their expectations are from the federal government.”

Education officials received more than 13,000 public comments on an initial draft first released in March. The newest version, obtained by The Detroit News but not publicly released, was modified to place a greater emphasis on parental involvement. It softened advice for school staff to avoid outing a transgender student to their parents without permission, a provision meant to protect the student from retaliation at home.

“When students have not come out to their parents, a disclosure to parents should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis,” read the latest draft. “School districts should consider the health, safety and well-being of the student, as well as the responsibility to keep parents informed. Privacy considerations may vary with the age of the students.”

The push for transgender student rights has prompted a national debate over school policies. The Obama administration in May issued a letter warning schools to avoid sex-based discrimination against transgender students or jeopardize federal funding.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette this month joined nine other states in suing the federal government in an attempt to block the new “directive,” calling it “yet another example of federal overreach” that ignored the role of parents.

The latest draft of the state guidance memo included language emphasizing its voluntary nature while describing a legal basis grounded in court interpretations of federal anti-discrimination laws.

Transgender students should be allowed to use bathroom and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, according to the draft, but the proposal also called for accommodations for any student who has a need or desire for additional privacy.

“For a variety of reasons, a student may have concerns about privacy or comfort when using these facilities with other students,” the guidance acknowledges.

The memo, now subject to further revision, recommended schools give students the right to access a single-user restroom or request various locker room privacy options, such as an adjusted changing schedule, use of an area separated by a curtain or access to a nearby nurse’s office.

Teachers and other school staff should “engage in reasonable and good faith efforts” to address students by their chosen names and use appropriate pronouns when requested by the parent or student, according to the draft.

The memo recommended students should generally be allowed to join sports teams consistent with their gender identity but noted that eligibility is governed by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, subject to state and federal civil rights laws.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston had distributed the revised draft guidance memo to Board of Education members on Monday, asking them to provide Austin with feedback by Friday.

“There’s still a lot to digest and look at and be attentive to,” Austin said. “Board members have not really had the chance to share questions, ask for more clarification and go back to work with staff and stakeholders to get this exactly right.”