Aug. 23 2018 09:51 AM

Transgender policy debate mirrors national politics



A petition that seeks to unseat four board members at Williamston Community Schools is a step closer to sparking a recall election as tensions surrounding policies passed by the board last year last reach a boiling point.

Lists of more than 1,400 names last week were turned into Ingham County officials amid an effort to remove board members Greg Talberg, Christopher Lewis, Nancy Deal and Sarah Belanger. The petitions weren’t fully verified by this week, but they contain enough signatures to bring the issue to a November vote, officials said.

“We knew this would be an issue that touched a nerve for people,” Talberg said. “It’s not shocking that we’ve had some pushback, but ultimately, it was an opportunity to put into place a policy that makes it a little less likely that a student runs away or potentially dies by suicide. I was willing to go through the process for that reason.”

Board members, by a nearly unanimous vote, approved two policies last year aimed at protecting student rights. One — specifically for transgender students — requires district officials accept students’ chosen gender identifies. The other mandates alternatives to “gender-segregated” restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities.

Talberg and Lewis doubled down this month on the necessity of the language as tensions continue to divide residents in the rural town east of Okemos. They want staff to be prepared to address the fluidity of gender identities and contended the policies will help ensure every student feels safe and welcomed while at school.

But in an area brimming with conservative values, the blowback has been fierce.

Some said the policies force parents to be left out of their students’ education. Billboards and signs encouraging the recall dot Grand River Avenue. And the policies have since developed into a federal lawsuit over “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Those behind the recall efforts and the ongoing lawsuit — including Edward and Erin Reynolds, Monica Schafer and Christopher Johnecheck — couldn’t be reached for comment. An unnamed individual from the “Williamston for Truth” Facebook page claimed to speak on their behalf but declined an interview for this story.

Their lawyers at the Great Lake Justice Center also didn’t return calls but released a “factsheet” regarding the policies, arguing the changes violated the constitutional and statutory rights of children and parents. The concern: Students could identify by a different gender at school without officials ever telling their parents.

The document also cites the American College of Pediatricians — which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a fringe ,anti-LGBT hate group — and argues the encouragement of gender ideology is actually a form of child abuse that carries health risks. The “impersonation” of the opposite sex is not “normal and healthful,” it reads.

Lewis said the policies only offer guidance for Supt. Adam Spina, not a clear directive for how every scenario should be handled. Administrators, depending on how they interpret the policy, could keep parents in the dark on a student’s gender identity to protect their safety. Students over age 18 can also speak for themselves, he said.

But the intent was always to keep parents involved in the conversations, Lewis repeatedly emphasized.

“I don’t understand the fact that so many people are worried about the involvement of parents when, without the policy, there was nothing that explicitly stated that parents would be informed anyway,” Talberg added.

The end results of the policy, however, remain a mystery. Spina refused to speak with a reporter for this story and wouldn’t elaborate about how the policies would ever be implemented. It’s not known if officials would allow students to make these decisions independently. The effect of the recent facilities policy was also just as unclear.

It could involve single-use bathrooms and private locker rooms, or “it could be something else,” Lewis added. And that ambiguity is likely what continues to widen the divide in Williamston, according to Joel Gerring, Michigan Association of School Boards’ attorney and former board member who voted to approve the policies.

“People are just scared of this notion that somebody with male anatomy could be allowed in a female restroom,” Gerring said. “It’s an irrational fear. Really, individuals who walk into any bathroom — regardless of their gender identity — and do something untoward will be arrested. That still applies to a transgender person.”

Talberg said the debate could be a smaller reflection of national politics. And Clancy Cline, a local graduate behind the “Make Williamston Great Again” Facebook page, certainly corroborates the claim. He launched the page to counterbalance “misinformation” about the “gay agenda” that seeks to force viewpoints on others.

“This policy completely obliterates the rights of parents and places squarely in the lap of the school the right to keep information about their children away from them,” Cline argued. “While I wholeheartedly disagree with gender-confused individuals and sodomites, I still love them and don’t want harm to come to them.”

The petition, if verified and approved for the November ballot, would give voters the opportunity to decide whether a recall election is necessary. State law requires final verification of the submitted petitions to be complete by September. The federal lawsuit has rested motionless since March, according to court records.

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage at Williamston Community Schools.

This story was updated to more accurately reflect the amount of signage along Grand River Avenue.