WILLIAMSTON- Williamston public school parent Sandy Dufrin walked up to the microphone.
Nearly 200 people crowded in the Williamston Middle School cafeteria.
All eyes are on Dufrin as her hands shake beneath the paper that declares her opposition to the 8011 policy, a topic that has catalyzed conflict in the school district. Tension fills the room as she asks, “If this policy is approved are you seriously going to look at an elementary student who can barely tie their shoes and affirm that he has the capacity to choose what gender he wants to be?”
Through months of deliberation, emotional unrest and controversial debates between opposing sides, the Williamston Board of Education has approved the 8011 Equal Protection of Transgender and Non-Conforming Students Policy at their meeting on Nov. 6.
According to the 8011 Proposal, “WCS shall accept the gender identity that each student asserts reflecting the students’ legitimately held belief once the student or his or her parent/guardian, as appropriate, notifies District administration that the student intends to assert a gender identity that differs from previous representation or records.”
The climax of the controversial debate occurred on Oct. 16 during the usual board meeting where nearly 60 citizens spoke on behalf of their beliefs.
From LGBTQ advocates and city residents, to students and staff, a number system with timed increments was implemented to ensure that all voices could be heard.
Following citizens’ comments, Jeffrey West, vice president of the school board, said that the board’s primary role is to create the policy, and the administration is responsible for managing those policies.
“As a board we decided that we needed to do something,” West said. “I would think that every person here, board members, as well as community members, would agree that not one student should be bullied, harassed or picked on. I also think that every person in this room will agree that no one student’s rights are more important than another, and we have to take that into consideration with what we’re doing.”
West also apologized for the controversy that erupted after the original draft was proposed on Sept. 18.
“Our first policy draft caused a lot of discomfort in this community and that was not our intent,” West said. “We’ve only had a few road maps to follow and we did seek council, as well as advice from others as to what we needed to do. We believe it is helpful to have input from the community, and the updated policy in front of us here has a lot less language to it from the original draft.”
The meeting was adjourned at 12:25 a.m. after nearly five hours of testimony from Williamston residents representing both support and opposition to the policy. The board announced that it planned to reach its final decision at their following meeting on Nov. 6.
After a couple weeks of anticipation and campaigning from outside groups, the board sat down on Nov. 6 to discuss the 8011 Equal Protection of Transgender and Non-Conforming Students Policy, as well as the 9260 Policy to allow access to gender-segregated activities and facilities.
After hours of contentious debate, the 8011 Policy was passed with a 6-1 vote by the board.
The board voted in favor of both policies, but also added that it will ensure that their policies adhere to the privacy rights of all students. Williamston Community Schools will implement this component of the policy by providing private restrooms and changing facilities to any student that feels uncomfortable using “gender-segregated” facilities.
Prior to the board’s vote, the usual portion of the meeting dedicated to citizens’ comments took place.
First to speak was a representative for the LGBTQ community, as well as parent, Nicole Ellefson, surrounded by nearly 30 people who stood next to her to take a stance in favor of the policy’s approval.
“When districts take the step that you are about to take, students report hearing far fewer slurs against LGBTQ people, and adults are more likely to help them if things go wrong,” Ellefson said. “This proof of safety is also mirrored in the fact that more than 200 cities, including 43 in Michigan, and 18 states, have laws that allow transgender people to use facilities that correspond to their gender, and they have had zero problems.”
Following this testimony, nearly half the crowd walked out in an effort to affirm their support of the policies.
“The time to act is now,” Ellefson said. “Many of us will not stay, many of us have been here for other long meetings and chose not to listen to more of the negative testimony that has been given at past meetings.”
Next to speak was the Williamston for Truth organization, a group that has taken a major stance on the topic- and continues to act upon their beliefs even after both policies have been approved.
The group congregated on one side of the room, dressed in matching shirts.
According to a Williamston for Truth spokesperson, who asked that her name not be used, the group is a, “grassroots community of parents and citizens with an extraordinary resolve to safeguard children and uphold fundamental rights.” Their mission is to, “uphold truth and liberty and affirm that parents have the fundamental right to raise and educate their children”.
Williamston for Truth members expressed their concerns for the policy, and were represented by many parents who threatened to remove their kids from the Williamston school district, as well as pursue legal efforts to find a way to eliminate the policies.
The group plans to continue their efforts regarding the opposition of the 8011 policy by seeking a temporary injunction on the policy.
These legal fundraising efforts are underway with help from the Great Lakes Justice Center who plans to take on the case. According to the Williamston for Truth organization, an anonymous donor will match up to $25,000 of donations to this cause.
According to Williamston for Truth spokesperson, these opposition efforts stem from two main concerns: an overreach of local government, or the school board, and poor policy overall.
For example, according to Williamston for Truth spokesperson, the group rejects a policy that leaves room for optional parental consent for a decision concerning a minor.
Williamston for Truth member, as well as Williamston parent, Chris Patterson also spoke at the meeting, providing his belief that the policy will affect the school district financially.
“We are expected to spend more money on a policy that we did not want in the first place,” Patterson said. “The board is operating on a $34 million deficit and you are knowingly accepting a huge fight that will result in a very large attorney bill that you can not pay for. Continuing on this course can result in a failed school district.”
According to the Williamston for Truth spokesperson, the board lacks a legislative obligation to the policy because the Trump Administration modified transgender protections that existed during the Obama Administration.
During the Obama Administration, the guidelines of Title IX applied to discrimination on gender identity, whereas now, the guidelines relate specifically to gender.
States will now decide on the issue, which, for the time being, puts pressure on local school districts to draft policies at their own discretion.
According to the Michigan State University Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Resources Center, policies have been enacted in East Lansing to follow their mission to, “lead and collaborate on university-wide initiatives that prepare students to thrive in our diverse world, and enhances the campus climate and support services for students marginalized by their sexuality or gender identity”.
These policies adhere to the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.
Student support specialist for the MSU LGBTQ Resource Center Bailey Krestakos says that at MSU, the application of Title IX means that transgender students cannot be denied use of the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity or occupation of a dorm room.
“Title IX can also be applied to any interaction that takes place on campus or off campus,” Krestakos said. “This means that bias, discrimination or harassment on the basis of gender that happen between any MSU affiliated people, or happen on MSU’s campus, are against campus policy under Title IX. We report Title IX violations to the Office of Institutional Equity (oie.msu.edu), and they handle investigations.”
Although Title IX has been modified, Williamston School Board member Kathy Hayes says that the district has a responsibility to protect civil rights of students.
“We must develop policies that are informed by law, protect all students and make sense for the community that it serves,” Hayes said. “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited in the state of Michigan within government employment. I recognize that these ordinances don’t cover schools, but it’s obvious that transgender individuals exist and we need to consider and address how we protect their civil rights.”