Williamston school board approves gender identity policies

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On Nov. 2, the seven members of the Williamston Community Schools Board of Education approved two policies related to gender identity and access to gender-segregated facilities

After several months of current and former students, as well as Williamston community members meeting at the local middle school, the school board reached a decision as to how they will assess their transgender students and gender identity concerns.

The decision came after months of meetings and public comment after the school board took on the issue of gender identity in its schools.

“Over the summer, the seven board members decided to draft some proposals for how the district should handle or deal with the needs of a number of gender-identity type issues,” Williamston High School Principal Jeffrey Thoenes said. “The school board went through their normal process of discussing and then voting on what is placed on their board agenda.”

Thoenes said the transgender issues were handled the same way that any other school board issue is.

“The final versions of this policy were adopted by a vote of the full board after a series of community forums, full board meetings, and policy subcommittee sessions,” Williamston Superintendent Adam Spina said.   

The voting process was a four-week ordeal, with meetings spanning over three weeks. Williamston has the first and the third Monday’s of the month set as their school board meetings, with those two Monday’s being originally set to be the voting days, but the process was postponed to further hear public input on the issue.

More than 200 community members, with spirited stances on both sides, students and parents attended the first school school board meeting to discuss the proposed policy at the time. Following the next couple subsequent meetings, then Williamston Middle School gymnasium filled up each time with many members of the community looking to voice their opinions.

Initially, there was wording regarding the use of pronouns and how students are to be addressed in the earlier drafts of the proposal, but those were dropped. Gender identity and access to gender-segregated activities and facilities remained as the two main focal points of the final drafts going forward.

In accordance with the Title IX law, it “prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and other education programs that receive federal funding.” Former president Barack Obama issued guidelines stating that Title IX’s prohibition against sex-based discrimination covers claims that are based on gender identity. Earlier this year, the Trump Administration repealed those guidelines issued by Obama.

“As board members, we felt that as a whole we needed to do something that will protect all of our students here,” said Jeffrey West, vice president of the board of education. “We believe that not one student, based on their rights and beliefs, should be bullied or picked on.”

Williamston became the first school district in the entire region to implement a policy involving transgender and non-gender conforming students. One part from the policy requires staff members to refer to students by their preferred name and gender, if they so request it.

“We will honor anyone’s request for how they are wanting to be called,” Thoenes said. “Do we really want to have other people control what other people are called? That sounds a little bit totalitarian to me.”

According to the draft of the 8011 Gender Identity policy, “WCS [Williamston Community Schools] shall accept the gender identity that each student asserts reflecting the student’s legitimately held belief once the student and/or his or her parent/guardian, as appropriate, notifies District administration that the student intends to assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records.”

“Myself and the board members realize that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited in the state of Michigan’s government employment,” board trustee Kathy Hayes said.

Another policy addressed allows any student the access to private restrooms if they feel uneasy in the gender-segregated areas. As stated by the 9260 Access to Gender-Segregated Activities and Facilities policy, the “WCS staff will work with the student to find an alternative that takes into account the privacy rights of all students, staff, and visitors. This may include, for example, the addition of a privacy partition or curtain, provision to use a nearby private restroom or office, or a separate changing schedule.”

Joey Ellis

The new policy allows students to use the restroom of the gender that they identify with. Photo by Joey Ellis

“I can’t imagine my grandchildren having to experience this,” Williamston resident Dave Smeak said. “As far as I can see, a male or female that says they feel like the opposite sex, can still go into the opposite shower and expose themselves.”

Speaking with students from neighboring school districts, their anti-harassment policy includes gender identity and sexual orientation, but there is no true policy directly related to locker room usage and restrooms.

Some students in the Williamston school district have already voiced their displeasure with the implemented policy.

“My classmates and I are actually the ones who will have to directly deal with the negative repercussions of this proposed policy,” Williamston High junior Luke Schafer said.

Joey Ellis

A crowd of over 200 Williamston students and parents listened on as over 60 people give their stance on the then proposed transgender policy. Photo by Joey Ellis

The original proposal, drafted back in October, was to allow students to pick their gender identity without having to inform their parents. In fact, this proposal would have prohibited faculty members from divulging information revealing transgender status to parents and other staff members, unless the law required such a disclosure for the sake of the student’s safety.

While parents were upset with the initial proposal, Board President Greg Talberg said the school board’s original intention always was to have the parents be apprised of their child’s status while concerning themselves with the privacy rights of the students.

With Williamston blazing the path as the first school district in the Greater Lansing area,  expect more and more conversations and debates from neighboring school district’s on gender identity and bathroom debate. On an ever-growing topic for debate, more and more school’s will be enacting policies to cater to the needs and rights of every student.

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