Remarks regarding Michigan Board of Education Draft Guidelines regarding LGBT students

A while back the folks and staff at the State Board of Education in Michigan announced proposed guidelines (not legislation and nothing requiring actions by local  school boards) for public schools addressing and working with LGBT students.  (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transgender–LGBT)

The Board of Education develops these suggestions in order to help school districts around the state.  In fact, last year and this winter the Board and others worked on Special Education issues, and a little about that effort can be found here:     http://www.michigan.gov/snyder/0,4668,7-277-73341-376468–,00.html

More recently the Board worked on issues surrounding the LGBT students found in our schools around the state and I think their draft report was a good step to help as schools and families and the public struggle with such issues, and I thought most of the suggestions made good sense.  The draft guidelines took steps to make the students safer and to allow more expression for the students, in a safe way.

Not everyone thought the guidelines were smart though.  There was quite a bit of push back. from some, and so the Board extended the comment period.   Some of the objections from others seem to stem from their religious beliefs, which I think should have a limited role, at best, in public schools–for once you go down that road the obvious question is: which belief? And some seemed to have misunderstood the nature of the guidelines, since it is not legislation nor is it required.

Another big objection among some commentators seems to spring in part from concerns about letting minors do things or seek guidance, without much (if any) input from their parents–and this may seem troubling of course.

But in several areas of the law, including emancipation, treatment for sexually transmitted disease (STD), homeless youth, counseling, and a few other areas, we carve out small islands to let minors deal with some issues with professionals and others, without absolutely requiring mom or dad get involved.

While often enough mom or dad do eventually get involved, there have been enough cases around where mom or dad was the problem, or at least mom and dad had a heck of a time initially digesting what their child had to say.  LGBT youth are still, studies find, more likely to be booted out from their homes, compared to others, and seem to have a higher suicide rate too.  While less common that in the past, such youth are sometimes still ‘disowned’ by family.

Just as our decades of experience working with youth concerned about STD’s has shown, a smart approach to sensitive topics and issues, which can include working with others and not automatically assuming “father knows best” may have value too.

We commented, on the 11th on our firm’s letterhead.  We think working with LGBT members of the community is worthwhile–and we’ve done that since we started.  Likewise, we’ve worked with Special Education issues since we started.  Not everyone has a chance to speak up–sometimes we can.

Our letter is below:

May 11, 2016

Kim Kovalchick, Supervisor

Michigan Department of Education

Coordinated School Health and Safety Programs unit

P.O. Box 30008

Lansing, MI 48909

Re: State Board of Education Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students

To whom this may concern:

I write in support of the above named draft guidelines and think it is appropriate, and important for the Board to address the issues involved and to make suggestions for schools around the state that are trying to come to grips with the needs facing the transgendered individuals we find in our school systems, as well as the needs of teachers, communities and other staff working on education for all.

 

By way of introduction I am an attorney in private practice, and served a few years ago as chair of the elder law and disability rights section of the state bar of Michigan.  Our practice includes elder law, lgbt work, estate planning and special education and disability representation.

 

I think the draft recommendations provide a pretty good snapshot of current thinking in the field and would offer a few other observations based on comments I’ve seen from others coupled with my own experiences.

 

First, it is important to note these are suggestions and not legislation, and giving weight to commentators thinking otherwise probably isn’t required.

 

Second, as to “bathroom safety” as some have suggested, we know already that little in these suggestions make bathrooms less safe, and that indeed, just last month at the Howard High School of Technology a girl was assaulted and died, in a traditional girls only bathroom, and her death was laid at the foot of the other girl’s action. But we have every reason to think these suggestions could make bathrooms a bit safer for those students who are transgendered.

 

Third, I note many suggestions are made by those who quote various religious texts, which I think may color their perception of the role of the Board and our public schools in these matters.  As Article VIII of our Michigan Constitution makes clear, while religion and morality and knowledge generally are cited for a foundation of good government and support of education, we are not permitted really, nor should we countenance, specific religious texts of certain religions, quoted only in part and out of context.  The Board should not create policy based on someone’s interpretation of portions of religious texts in a secular system such as we have, nor should the board give any weight to those making religious arguments against the proposal guidelines.

 

Fourth, I think it prudent to allow children to turn to others for guidance or at least information and research in a safe environment—and yes, I mean, without consulting or “telling” their parents.  Again, many commentators suggested this bothered them a good deal—and at first blush they might seem to have a point.  However, we know from legislation and public policy in this state, at least a few decades old, that there is support for the proposition that minors in sensitive areas, such as treatment of STD’s for instance (Seen MCL 333.5127 as amended, for example) may do so without parental consent.  The safety and welfare of the individual, and the possibility that a shocked or dismayed parent might over-react and perhaps hurt a student with unwelcome news, is a basis for these sort of carve-outs from complete parental control.  And as national statistics and materials cited in your own policies imply, lgbt youth, especially trans youth, face a delicate path forward, and more often are homeless, assaulted, or harmed in other ways, than non-lgbt youth. Why on earth would some commentators suggest that we put their life more at risk?

 

Fifth, although treated or labeled now as a Dysphoria in DSM 5, rather than the Disorder in DSM 4 the diagnosis of a person with the condition makes me think an intelligent and thoughtful and non judgmental and religion free approach is the best way to help students and staff coming to grips with the small per cent of students involved.

 

Sixth, as the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights office have already noted, their policy seems to indicate, at present, that gender disorder and trans discrimination complaints may well be treated as sex discrimination cases.  As such, and until that policy is withdrawn by the feds or struck down by the US Supreme Court, a Michigan policy that discriminates against transgendered individuals might well be a costly and losing endeavor for the state, and as a taxpayer and as a general supporter of everyone’s human rights, I’d hope you would not make the policies discriminatory.

Sincerely yours,

Bradley A. Vauter, J.D.

P.S. one of the earlier stories covering the draft guidelines can be found on the Education World website:   http://www.educationworld.com/a_news/new-guidance-michigan-board-education-pushes-state-schools-allow-students-pick-gender

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