Federal lawsuit looks for ‘adjunctive relief,’ transgender school policies still important debate in Williamston

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After months of deliberation and a slew of meetings trademarked with passionate arguments, the Williamston Community Schools Board of Education passed a pair of policies in November 2017 in relation to transgender youth and their definition, among other guidelines.

And despite passing months ago, the debate surrounding the policies have yet to go away.

Currently, there’s a pending federal lawsuit that names six of seven Williamston Board of Education members as defendants: Greg Talberg, Christopher Lewis, Sarah Belanger, Nancy Deal, Kathy Hayes and Joel Gerring. The seventh member of the board at the time, Jeffrey West, was the lone vote against the policies, which the school board passed 6-1. He is not named in the lawsuit.

According to the Williamston Community Schools website, Gerring is no longer a member of the board. He resigned a day after the vote. Scott Gaffner, who was appointed to his trustee position on Nov. 30, 2017, is not named in the lawsuit.

In response to the lawsuit, the board released a statement. In the statement, found on the website under “announcements,” it details how the board’s attorneys looked to file a motion dismissing the lawsuit.

“We have reviewed our School Board policies brought into issue by the allegations raised in plaintiffs’ Complaint,” the statement reads. “The School District does not believe that any constitutional or statutory right of any students or their families has been infringed upon in any manner. Our attorneys advise that they will bring a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in accordance with the Scheduling Order set by the court.”

The motion can be read here.

The policies

The Williamston Community School Board passed two policies: 8011 “Gender Identity” and 9260 “Access to Gender-Segregated Activities and Facilities.” Both can be found here.

“My initial reaction to the policy was that I was very proud of my community for taking this amazing first step to ensure equality for all students at Williamston,” said Emma Elleson-Frank, a student at Williamston High School.

The signage at Williamston High School is pictured on April 29, 2018. Photo by: Souichi Terada.

However, Elleson-Frank said some of her fellow students didn’t quite feel the same way.

“From what I’ve heard at Williamston, from the people that I know at Williamston, the reactions from the students were mostly negative,” Elleson-Frank said. “After talking with some of them, it seemed like they hadn’t read the policies or maybe they didn’t quite know what it had done.”

Talberg, who’s also the president of the board, penned a letter to the Williamston community as an update after months of contentious debate on Nov. 2, 2017. He highlighted two main points the policies would address.

“The first was to ensure that our school community knows that Williamston Community Schools will be a place where all students, including those who may identify as transgender, are welcome and will be supported,” Talberg wrote. “The second purpose of the policy was to provide guidance to our staff in their efforts to support the often unique needs of transgender students.”

Ava Coram, a former Williamston High School student, found herself sitting at many of the school board meetings. She’s a transgender woman; and while she didn’t make her personal transition until after high school, she said she often felt uncomfortable identifying as a male then.

“It just took me a really long time to say it out loud, to talk to people about it,” Coram said. “I basically knew that I wanted to. I just couldn’t bring myself to actually talk to my family about it for a long time.”

And to this day, Coram said she experiences problems on and off, even within the Williamston community.

“I’ve had a couple issues living in Williamston, even before I came out,” Coram said. “I was kind of harassed by classmates. Since coming out, there will be people who shout at me from their cars. They’ll shout slurs or just mean things.”

Coram, though, said she was happy the board passed the pair of policies. While she said she wasn’t cognizant of being transgender in high school, she mentioned she would’ve been too scared to come out.

However, Coram said the situation is a potential win for those who filed the lawsuit.

“I would worry about if there are trans, non-binary, LGBTQ kids in the school, I would worry for their safety if basically there’s this huge, visible victory for the other side,” Coram said.

The lawsuit

After the school board passed the pair of policies, there was some backlash. Aside from the federal lawsuit, there’s an effort to recall members of the Williamston School Board who passed the policies.

Some houses around the Williamston area have yard signs calling for the board member’s recall.

The recall effort, though, is separate from the federal lawsuit that lists six of the seven school board members at the time, along with the Williamston Community School District as defendants.

Listed among the plaintiffs, Edward and Erin Reynolds, said they removed their children from the Williamston School District because of the policies, according to the lawsuit.

There are also two other parents named in the lawsuit, Monica Schafer and Christopher Johnecheck. A minor child, named A.B. in the lawsuit, is also listed as a plaintiff. The lawsuit says Edward Reynolds is A.B.’s next friend, meaning he represents the minor child.

A summary of the plaintiffs’ complaints, were listed in a press release from the Great Lakes Justice Center, a Lansing-area law firm.

David Kallman, senior legal counsel for Great Lakes Justice Center, also penned a piece that published in the Lansing State Journal, detailing the rational and complaints the plaintiffs have.

The attorney said one of the main points the lawsuit is trying to tackles is privacy rights. Kallman also said the school board, constitutionally speaking, overstepped bounds in passing the pair of policies.

“The issue is you got a school board that is passing policies that we believe are infringing on the rights of parents, as well as students,” Kallman said. “You have the right of privacy of other students that’s being ignored, with this locker room showers, bathroom situation. You got a right of parents to be informed of medical issues and important decisions in their children’s lives, that the school is not going to tell them about under their policy.

And in terms of bullying, Kallman said the same standard should be met for everybody. In other words, he said any student who bullies another, regardless of the issue, should be punished.

“Anybody who’s doing that, another student bullying, should be dealt with swiftly and directly,” Kallman said. “Nobody in their right mind wants that.”

In terms of the ultimate goal of the lawsuit, Kallman said the aim isn’t money, but more the dismissal of the policies.

“We ask for adjunctive relief, we ask that the policies be set aside,” Kallman said. “That they’re unconstitutional. That the board doesn’t have the power, constitutionally, to pass laws or policies like this that fly in the face of state law.”

The intervention

From the time the policies were first introduced to the school board, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, knew about them, staff attorney Jay Kaplan said. So when the ACLU heard about the lawsuit against members of the school board, it needed to take action.

ACLU, on behalf of Stand with Trans and the Williamston Gay-Straight Alliance, filed a motion to intervene within the lawsuit. While the school district did not oppose the motion to intervene, the plaintiffs did.

From there, ACLU filed a reply. At its current point, Kaplan said what should be happening next is the judge for the case will be scheduling a hearing date to hear out the motion on intervention. And from there, a decision will be made.

Roz Keith, the founder and board present of Stand with Trans, said the organization was conceived out of the need to provide resources for trans youth and their families.

“Five years ago, my younger child came out to me and told me that he was a trans male,” Keith said. “And there were absolutely no resources anywhere around our geography in southeastern Michigan. We couldn’t find a therapist who was knowledgeable in gender issues. There were just no resources whatsoever.”

So when she heard about the lawsuit against the school board members, Keith, along with Stand with Trans, was appalled to hear of the news.

“Because our mission is to support transgender youth, we really were angry and shocked that there were people out there who felt that it imposed on their personal views and provide rights for other students.

While litigation will continue its due course, Kaplan said ACLU thought this case would be an important one, especially for the school districts.

The attorney stressed the ACLU was concerned that if the threat of a lawsuit hung over school districts and inhibits them, it would make them think they were prohibited from “doing the right thing.”

“Our ultimate goal is for a decision that makes it very clear that school districts do have the legal authority to be able to pass LGBT-inclusion, non-discrimination policies,” Kaplan said. “To make sure schools are a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.”