Oct. 26 2017 12:46 AM

Williamston readies transgender policy for schools

Williamston finds itself at the center of controversy playing out locally and nationally: how to accommodate transgender and gender-nonconforming students in the school environment.

School Board members have been working on a policy for months. At issue: which bathroom and locker room may transgender and gender-nonconforming students use? Should they participate in sports based on their gender identity or the gender assigned to them at birth?

Board members will meet tonight on a third draft. Board President Greg Talberg said the plan is to adopt the policy on Nov. 6.

The policy would allow students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, if the district is informed of the decision by parents. In addition, the district would change gender references in school records and keep a confidential file containing the student’s original name and gender.

Talberg said the district, which has 1,800 students, is unaware of any who are transgender.

“We’re really trying to be proactive and pragmatic so that we don’t get stuck in a situation where a kid is stuck in the middle of this,” Talberg said.

He said some residents “are confused; some in the community are just upset. But they’re upset at the board. I’d prefer that than fears directed at a student.”

Indeed, the district has held two public meetings about the proposed policy this month. Each was packed with community members on both sides of the issue.

The public body has also received at least 200 letters both for and against the policy during that time.

Sean Bertolino is opposed. He is a parent in the district and serves on the Williamston City Council.

“I’ve not yet had anyone explain to me why we are doing this, why it is needed now,” he said in a phone interview. “There is quite a split on this, as we have seen in the state and anywhere this topic has come up.”

Even in the midst of serious disagreement in the community, he said the board has listened to concerns from parents and made changes.

A controversial provision in an earlier draft would have cut parents out of the loop and allowed students to change their gender identity and name on their own. The draft would have prohibited the school from notifying parents of this change.

That provision was dropped from the latest draft policy based on feedback from the community.

Opponents like Bertolino are opposed to the policy because they fear it could act as a possible enticement for inappropriate activities. Opponents often cite privacy concerns for women and children and worry that transgender people will sexually assault people in bathrooms.

“All it takes from what I’ve read is a student to tell you in complete confidence they are transgender,” wrote Johnny Pratt in a Sept. 29 email to the board. “After that they are allowed to use the bathroom of their preference. When I was in high school I was a walking hard-on. As well as 99 percent of any male student at that age. If I was able to tell someone I was transgender in complete disclosure and have the ability to walk into the woman’s locker room, It’s something I would have done and I know lots of other guys who would have done the same.”

Williamston High School’s executive president of student government wrote the board that assumptions expressed by Pratt and others opposed to the policy were “not realistic.” “No students would ‘pretend’ to be trans,” Lillie Wilson- Daeschlein wrote.

“No one is going to go through an extensive process of ‘coming out’ just so they can pull a prank or peep at people of the opposite sex.” Experts in sexual assault disagree with opponents as well. An April 2016 consensus statement from 200 rape and sexual assault crisis organizations in the country, put out by the National Task Force to End Sexual Domestic Violence Against Women, noted over 200 municipalities and 18 states have laws protect- ing the transgender community from discrimination, including access to bathrooms.

“None of those jurisdictions have seen a rise in sexual violence or other public safety issues due to nondiscrimination laws,” the letter said. “Assaulting another person in a restroom or changing room remains against the law in every single state.” Two anti-LGBT groups are pushing against the proposed policy in Williamston. The Great Lakes Justice Center, run by David Kallman, is saber rattling about suing the district should it adopt the policy for transgender students. Kallman was also an active opponent of Delta Township’s comprehensive human rights ordinance.

That law, adopted by the township in 2013, included both sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes from discrimination. The other group is the American College of Pediatricians, which in 2002 broke from the American Academy of Pediatrics after it endorsed adoption rights for same-sex couples. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the ACP an anti-LGBT hate group. Great Lakes Justice Center cites ACP for opposition to the Williamston policy on its website.

Driving the Williamston School Board members is an Obama-era policy directive that has since been rescinded by President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, of Michigan. Talberg said that’s because the replacement “Dear Colleague Letter” requires schools to sure that “all students are protected from discrimination.”

The DeVos directive required school districts to allow students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity but provides no legal requirements other than schools provide a safe learning environment for all students. As a result, there are a patchwork of federal court rulings both for and against transgender youth in a variety of schools across the country. Talberg said he expects there will be a lawsuit over the policy. “We are going to get sued either way,” he said. “But I would rather get sued for doing the right thing. I think we have a better chance.”