Lawmakers, advocates spar over LGBTQ guidelines for MI schools

Mar 30, 2016

The State Board of Education is developing guidelines to make schools safer and more supportive for LGBTQ students, but the voluntary guidance is generating a backlash from GOP legislators who say it undermines parental rights and could compromise student safety.


By 2026, state officials want to see Michigan as one of the top performers in education. Department of Education leaders say a key part of reaching that goal is reducing the impact of high-risk factors that lead to students falling behind or dropping out.

New guidelines from the State Board of Education are aimed at helping schools address those risk factors for LGBTQ students. They range from supporting Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to letting transgender students use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

But the recommendations have created a backlash from Republican lawmakers and some parents. State House Speaker Kevin Cotter says the Board didn’t alert parents and the public to the proposed guidelines, and other Republicans have said some of the policies would compromise student safety and privacy.

Advocates, on the other hand, say that the guidelines are about protecting the safety and privacy of LGBTQ students.

The draft guidelines have generated over 5,000 online comments.

Now, the State Board of Education has announced it will extend the public comment period for at least an extra 30 days.

Current State talks with the Executive Director for Equality Michigan, Stephanie White, and Republican State Rep. and member of the House Education Committee Tim Kelly.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Why do you think these guidelines will create a safe learning environment for LGBTQ students?

“We know that from the Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey that LGBT students are two and a half times more likely to be threatened with a weapon at school, or to feel unsafe. I think anything that our schools do to send the signal that all students are welcome and have the right to an education sets the right tone in our schools. We know from schools around the country - and around Michigan - that have already adopted policies like these, that it does make students safer” -- Stephanie White

Why do you think these recommendations are misguided?

“You opened up by saying this is part of the “ten in ten” strategy by the state board. That’s a stretch to think that doing what we can to accommodate LGBT students is going to raise student achievement in Michigan. 

Having said that, I think we want to have a welcoming environment for all students. But when you try and take care of a small percentage of people at the expense of a large majority, I think you’ve got big problems.” -- Tim Kelly

Why is having the State provide guidelines a problem?

“If they want to offer the guidelines, fine. But I think they’re going to find that they need to be re-written pretty substantially. When you obfuscate what’s going on in the school between students and parents, you’re going to have big problems. Schools are not social Petri dishes for kids to explore their sexuality. They’re there to learn, and I think that the State board of education ought to be more concerned about our falling behind the nation as far as student achievement.” -- Kelly

“I agree [with Kelly's last sentence], and I think the schools are places we need to focus on learning. We talked to students, teachers and administrators around the country. We’ve got to remove these kinds of barriers that prevent kids from showing up to school, being themselves and focusing on their work. If you talk to schools and teachers where they allow students to designate their own nickname - which is the way they do it in the Ann Arbor schools - those kids actually show up to school, and do a much better job of learning. There’s a lot of proof already out there. There’s no need to speculate on what this will or won’t do. We know from fact and experience that these kinds of policies actually do raise achievements and protect the students.” -- White

On transgender restroom access

“I think every person deserves a right to privacy for their medical information or history. That’s just a basic principle we have for respecting privacy in our country. This is no different. Transgender people may or may not go through various medical interventions - but that’s their privacy. I think that it's important for people to understand is that our gender is not necessarily determined by our chromosomes. That’s something that affects a small percentage of our population, but those kids do exist and have a right to go to school and be safe.” -- White

“I think it’s hogwash. It’s absolutely absurd. This is an argument that has not been won in the court of public opinion. To suggest that it has is terribly erroneous. This has to be discussed for a much longer period then a couple weeks at a State Board level, and then all the sudden adopted. I can understand if you have single toilet bathrooms that a unisex or family can easily utilize. But when you talk about stalled facilities that are going to be transgendered - it's absurd at this point. You have not won this argument in public court.” -- Kelly