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Transgender school guidance scheduled for vote

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The State Board of Education is preparing to vote next month on a revised guidance memo suggesting schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity but also offer private options to all students.

The board will move to approve the optional recommendations on Sept. 14, said President John Austin. The guidance is designed to help schools improve the educational, health and safety outcomes for students most likely to face discrimination, he said.

The proposed memo identifies “best practice activities that schools can put in place — and many already are — to create a welcoming environment for LGBT students that helps them stay in school, engage in learning and not be ostracized,” Austin said.

But critics have called the push for transgender policy recommendations an attempt at “social engineering” by Austin and other Democrats who control the board.

“This is a bizarre agenda which I believe will be overwhelmingly opposed by Michigan citizens, regardless of political affiliation,” said State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland. “I’m hopeful the GOP Legislature stops this from being forced on the state.”

An initial draft of the guidance released in March prompted passionate feedback from both supporters and critics during a March 14-May 11 public comment period.

The revised version is now available for review online, and Austin said citizens will again be welcomed to speak on the proposal at next month’s Board of Education meeting before the vote.

The recommendations are “voluntary and should not be considered mandates or requirements,” according to the memo, but schools are advised to:

■Allow students to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity. Alternative options, such as an all-gender or single-user restroom, should be made available to any student who requests them.

■Make good faith efforts to address transgender students by their chosen names and pronouns when requested by a parent, guardian or the student.

■Let transgender students use locker rooms and changing facilities consistent with their gender identity. However, any student with a desire for increased privacy should be able to request an adjusted changing schedule or use of a private facility, such as a nurse’s office or gym teacher’s office.

■Allow transgender students to participate in physical education classes and intramural sports consistent with their gender identity. The same rationale should “generally” apply to interscholastic sports, but the memo notes eligibility is determined by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

The most significant revisions relate to privacy and parental involvement. Critics contended the earlier draft would have let teachers “hide” a student’s gender identity transition from their parents.

The new proposal recommends that schools consider parental disclosure on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether a transgender student has “come out” at home or could face potential abuse.

“Of course we want parents involved in making decisions, and on a case-by-case basis, that’s what schools are doing, with the rare exception of a kid who has not come out to their parents,” Austin said.

The memo specifies that the recommendations are based on a federal anti-discrimination law tied to school funding, as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which treats a student’s gender identity as their sex.

“In essence, schools must not treat a transgender student differently from the way they treat other students of the same gender identity, regardless of the student’s assigned sex at birth,” according to the memo.

While voluntary, Glenn said he is concerned a court could codify the state recommendations as a “right.” A better solution is for schools to provide transgender students with separate private and secure facilities, he said, as opposed to guaranteeing them access to gender-specific bathrooms or locker rooms.

“They say that it’s stigmatizing to a child who claims to believe they are of the opposite sex to have to change somewhere else, so that’s not acceptable, and yet they say for normal children it’s OK to have a solution be that they have to dress or shower in a private facility,” he said.

Eileen Weiser, one of two Republicans on the eight-member state Board of Education, said in an email she does not think statewide guidance is needed because schools “are solving this on a case-by-case basis, and it’s working.”

Separate federal guidance on transgender students has prompted multiple legal challenges, including a suit joined by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, and Weiser said “no government entity should be proposing guidelines while court cases are pending.”

Republican state legislators have introduced a series of bills in response to the initial policy recommendations, including House legislation that would restrict gender-specific bathroom and locker room use in any school or government building based on “biological sex,” potentially overriding local policies or ordinances.

Austin suggested the legislation would send “the wrong message” about Michigan and subject it to the type of national criticism and business backlash North Carolina has faced because of its own “bathroom” law, which recently led the National Basketball Association to move next year’s All-Star game to another state.

“I think the guidance clearly addresses earlier concerns in ways anyone who is open-minded would view as helpful and appropriate,” he said. “It will never satisfy folks who don’t want to acknowledge that LGBT people and children exist.”

joosting@detroitnews.com