Michigan's education board on Wednesday approved voluntary guidelines that urge schools to create an inclusive environment for LGBT students, including by letting transgender students use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.
The guidelines, which some Republican lawmakers criticized, were issued four months after the Democrat-controlled board concluded a contentious public comment period. More than 160 people testified in Lansing in the spring, while 75 more weighed in Wednesday at a packed board meeting. The board, which earlier received some 13,000 comments in writing or by phone, voted 6-2 in favor along party lines.
According to the guidelines, schools should work to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from harassment, violence and discrimination. They should support the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs, incorporate LGBT topics throughout their "educational culture" and offer professional development opportunities to all employees on issues affecting LGBT students.
When schools and parents respect a student's gender identity, the student "is more likely to learn and thrive," according to the guidelines, which say that students, themselves, are best situated to determine their gender identity and that outside confirmation from medical and mental health professionals isn't required.
The recommendations cite the U.S. Department of Education's interpretation that a 1970s sex discrimination law makes it illegal to discriminate against transgender students. They also urge schools to:
—carefully consider on a case by case basis whether to inform parents that their child is transgender if that child hasn't come out to the parents.
—make "reasonable and good faith" efforts to address transgender students by their chosen names and the corresponding pronoun when asked by the student or parents.
—give transgender students access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities in accordance with each student's gender identity. Any student, regardless of the reason, should have access to a unisex or single-user bathroom. A student who wants more privacy could request an adjusted changing scheduled or the use of a private area such as a nurse's office or gym teacher's office.
—let transgender students participate in physical education classes and intramural sports in accordance with their gender identity. The same rule "generally" should apply to interscholastic sports, but eligibility is determined by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts said Wednesday that because MHSSA rules prevent boys from being on girls teams in state tournaments, the organization "will determine eligibility ... on a fact-driven, case-by-case basis."
"The intent is to provide as much opportunity as possible for transgender students without reducing overall opportunities for females in competitive athletics," Roberts said.
Board members were at odds before the vote.
Republican Richard Zeile said he thinks the most frequently bullied kids are obese, "not the sexual minorities." He said surveys show that 80 percent of all kids grades 4 through 8 report being bullied, and that being bullied is not a particular problem for LGBT children.
But Democrat Michelle Fecteau said LGBT students are "very vulnerable" and it is "nonsensical" to argue that they shouldn't be protected because other groups of students also are at risk. A 2015 survey of Michigan students cited by the state Department of Education says LGBT students are at least two times more likely than their heterosexual peers to be bullied and to skip school because they do not feel safe.
"It's the LGBT community that have been incredibly vilified — told that they are deviants, told that they are ungodly ... disowned by family members," she said.
Shane Shananaquet, a transgender tenth-grader from Adrian, told the board that he isn't a "predator" and is "proud and excited" to attend school in an accommodating district where his new name is recognized, he sings in the boys choir and uses the male restroom.
"Students in other schools are not as lucky as me," he said. "They suffer. They hide themselves. They go an entire day without using the bathroom at all."
Rusty Chatfield, the pastor of a church in Burt Lake, said that while he feels badly for the parents of transgender students, "I don't think that encouraging someone's feelings, which is against theology, is going to help them."
But Brian Perry, who has a transgender child, countered that state guidelines are needed so educators "need something to fall back on when they feel the pressure, the stress from those in our community who are wanting to keep things in the 1950s."
Some guideline opponents predicted future legal fights. In August, a federal judge in Texas blocked the Obama administration's May directive that public schools let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
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