Oct. 18 2018 11:00 AM

Four on school board facing Nov. 6 recall

Angie Gebott thinks her children are growing uncomfortable at Williamston Community Schools.

The board of education at the rural, 1,800-student school district passed two policies last year that have only helped to normalize what Gebott sees as a troubling “trend” in which an increasing number of students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And she believes her three, heterosexual children have become increasingly marginalized as the tide continues to turn.

“I don’t think kids quite gain their sexuality until they get into college. I think it’s really confusing a lot of these kids,” Gebott said. “Your genitals are what makes your sex regardless of whether you want to be this or that. It’s a matter of fact. That’s all it is. It’s science and that’s the way my kids look at it. They find this very frustrating.”

Parents like Gebott crowded board meetings last year to oppose Policies 8011 and 9260. One — specifically for transgender students — requires district officials to accept students’ chosen gender identities. The latter mandates alternatives to “gender-segregated” restrooms, locker rooms and other student-used facilities.

The board, by a 6-1 vote, agreed the policies were necessary. They protect all students and prepare staff to address the fluidity of gender identities, said Board President Greg Talberg. They wanted to ensure every student, regardless of their life decisions, will feel safe and welcomed, at least during the time they’re at school.

But not everyone in the rural, conservative town agrees with the board. Some thought the policies infringed on familial rights and could allow students to transition to the opposite gender without any guarantee that parents would ever receive notification. Some, like Gebott, said they allow for an unfair brand of “special treatment.”

A recall election — after more than 1,000 residents signed a petition this summer — was born from the controversy, and now, on Nov. 6, four challengers are hoping to unseat the board members who stood behind the policies.

Policy controversy

Talberg knew the policies spearheaded by the board last year would touch a nerve, but he wasn’t shocked to see the blowback — or the dozens of yard signs in local neighborhoods that called for him to step aside. Anything the district can do to make life at least a little easier for students is worth the effort, he said.

“Ultimately, it was an opportunity to put into place a policy that makes it less likely that a student runs away or potentially dies by suicide,” Talberg said previously.

“I was willing to go through the process for that reason.”

Gebott, like many others in Williamston, believes sexuality and gender identities are a choice. Any districtwide policies that safeguard those decisions are a “distraction” to the education of her children. And her daughter is growing concerned that she might someday have a transgender man walk inside her bathroom, Gebott added.

“I know we’re trying to do non-discriminatory things and whatnot, and that’s great. Go America,” Gebott said. “But you’re basically doting to a few students as opposed to a majority. The board would rather make the majority feel uncomfortable as opposed to a few students that are basically making themselves uncomfortable.”

Other parents, like Joel Wallace, believe a combination of religious ideals and an unwillingness to accept the LGBTQ community is driving the divide. He knows the purpose of the policies was to help students through potentially challenging transitions. And the backlash has only allowed some to show their true, bigoted colors.

“We should always go with kindness and help first,” Wallace said. “ I think this kind of contrived debate at this level is misdirected. People are saying they don’t want their kids turned gay by the school. They don’t support those lifestyles. It’s absurd. Hopefully we can collectively get past this and get back to focusing on education.”

Karen Potter, the sales director of Covenant Eyes, a software company “dedicated to the eradication of pornography,” is challenging Talberg for his board seat. She thinks the current board rushed through its policy decisions without considering concerns from the community. And she bills herself as a “consensus builder.”

Board Secretary Nancy Deal will also face off against newcomer Walter Holm.

Board Treasurer Sarah Belanger will defend her post against Debbie Hutchison.

And incumbent trustee Christopher Lewis is running against Craig Hagelberger. Each of the challengers said the two policies directly motivated them to get involved.

“Whether or not we needed them? That’s up for debate,” Potter said. “But parents need to be involved.”

Mixed messages

Board members said they spent months molding the policies into reality and hosted public meetings that ran past midnight as local residents took to the podium to offer their own suggestions or strongly worded criticisms. But an ongoing lack of clarity surrounding the implementation of the policies has sowed a deep-rooted divide.

Policy 8011 states that staff shall accept the chosen and genuinely held gender of a student “once the student and/ or his or parent/guardian, as appropriate, notifies District administration” of their intentions. Many have voiced concerns about exactly how much discretion parents would receive, should a child make that choice.

The board has repeatedly insisted that the “and/or” language regarding parental involvement was designed specifically for adult students and emancipated teenagers. Talberg also envisioned scenarios where student safety concerns could necessitate parents be left in the dark, but otherwise plans to keep parents in the loop.

“I think the policy is clear that we’ll accept and support students and keep parents informed,” Talberg added. “The fact is that if a student accesses this policy and identifies as a different gender, the policy clearly states that parents will be involved in the process. Really, the only time that would be in question is for student safety.”

Others think the policies give district officials free rein to push parents out of public education. Hagelberger, for example, said the board gave too much discretion to staff when it comes to parental involvement. He said he has no problem with transgender “lifestyles” but said those independent decisions should be largely reserved for adults.

“They’ve almost entirely stripped parental rights where it concerns that policy,” Hagelberger added. “I’m against 8011 for the way it excludes parents from the process. They don’t have to tell parents, if they deem it necessary.”

The board, by default, only passes policies as guidelines for administration. And Superintendent Adam Spina still hasn’t explained how he plans to roll the policies into reality. For weeks he has declined to provide clarity to City Pulse. The community, as a result, has been largely forced to decipher the policy language for itself.

And interpretations have varied widely from person to person. Dave Carter, the coach of the junior varsity boys tennis team, for example, said students should first be psychologically evaluated before they’re able to transition from one gender to another. He also likened varying gender transitions to a medical diagnosis for depression.

“How do you really know until you really get evaluated?” Carter suggested. “Is that person a transgender or do they just think they’re a transgender? Or, at times, do they have like pedophile tendencies? That’s why I think they should be evaluated.” He said his views were based on working at a psychiatric hospital. “I’ve seen it all.”

Spina was specifically notified of Carter’s viewpoints and their potential deviation from the board’s policy on acceptance, but he didn’t respond to continued interview requests. Carter later contacted City Pulse to ask that his on-the-record comments be excluded from this story but City Pulse declined to acquiesce to his request.

“I think sometimes I talk too much,” Carter added later.

‘God made them male and female’

Behind the recall election, opposition to the board’s policies are also brewing in the form of a federal lawsuit waged against the school district. Plaintiffs in the case — including Edward and Erin Reynolds, Monica Schafer and Christopher Johnecheck — couldn’t be reached for comment. But court records elaborated their concerns.

Some suggested the policies clashed with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Their lawyers at the Great Lakes Justice Center also didn’t return calls but released a “factsheet” that argued the changes violated the constitutional and statutory rights of children and parents. That case remained unresolved this week.

The Rev. Chris Beard, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Williamston, said his concerns are related to the board’s unwillingness to collaborate with parents when the policies were drafted. But Talberg insisted parents had plenty of opportunities to provide input, which was taken seriously when the policies were passed.

“Obviously, things could have been done differently, but the fact is those policies are a direct and clear reflection from those concerns from the community,” Talberg said. “And I’m comfortable with the policies we have.”

But Beard who has six children in the district, still believes parental notification is optional for district staff. And he would never condone a transgender transition in his family, he said. His interpretation of the Bible forbids it. And besides, most children “experimenting” with transgenderism are just confused, he said.

“I believe the Bible literally. God made them male and female,” Beard added. “Times are changing and I’m totally OK with the right kind of change. If someone at the schools says they’re transgender, that’s none of my business. But it does become my business when they make a policy laser-focused on one group of people.”

Beard thinks the school’s pre-existing, anti-bullying policies are more than enough to protect transgender students as they make their transition to a different gender. And he’s concerned that the board’s policy on facilities might someday force his young daughter to share a bathroom with a biologically male classmate.

“These students should have their own bathroom but instead they were told that could single them out and make them feel uneasy,” Beard said. “This isn’t a matter of race. It’s a matter of lifestyle, and I don’t believe people were born this way. I don’t think anyone should be harassed, but I think people choose their sexuality.”

But the implementation of the facilities policy is just as ambiguous as its partner. Board member Christopher Lewis suggested transgender students could be limited to single-use bathroom stalls and private locker rooms, or “it could be something else.” Spina, again, refused to provide any operational clarity.

Kate Van Allsburg, who teaches private music lessons to WCS students, has tried to keep her opinions quiet to maintain her clientele. With some parents, they’ve agreed to disagree so they can stay friends. But she put out political signs on her yard this year for the first time. Van Allsburg just couldn’t keep quiet any longer, she said.

“I think the group that has been complaining is very narrow-minded and just can’t see the bigger picture,” she added, labeling challengers as “very far right extremists.” “If it doesn’t fit their model, they just won’t listen.”

The current board members are largely unwilling to revise the policies should they be re-elected to their positions. The challengers want to ensure parents are notified about any and all potential gender transitions.

Hagelberger declined to comment on facilities but Holms wants single-use stalls for transgender students.

And Potter just wants to bring parents back to the table to consider a revision to the existing policies.

“Nobody wants to be forced to do anything,” Potter said. “I’m a consensus builder. I will listen to all sides and I believe that every student is important. I want to bring back that culture that we had and focus in on that. We all just need to build bridges and find a way to heal our community and move forward. We need to work together.”

For Wallace and his daughter, that healing can’t come quickly enough. The goal of the policies was simply to help children through a difficult time, he said. And he was shocked to see the sharp response. The spotlight now focused on his otherwise sleepy community over this ongoing debate is a prolonged embarrassment, he said.

As for Gebott, she hopes to see the policies adjusted — and promptly. The contentious issue is forcing her three children to think deeply about transgenderism and acceptance within the local school district. And that’s “really stressing them out, making them uncomfortable and interfering with their education,” she contended.

“I think that you don’t get to choose your gender,” Gebott added. “The students not in transition, who are very aware of their genitals, have become very scared for their privacy. This really seems absolutely unfair and unjust to me and my children. They didn’t want to go to school because they had to deal with this issue.”

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

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com

Editor's Note: This story was corrected to accurately reflect board member Christopher Lewis' title.