Michigan board poised to approve LGBT guidance to schools

A sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at a high school in Seattle.

A sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at a high school in Seattle.  (AP)

Guidelines set for approval Wednesday by Michigan's education board urge schools to create an inclusive environment for LGBT students, including by letting transgender students use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.

The voluntary guidance, which some Republican lawmakers have criticized, will be issued four months after the Democrat-controlled board concluded a contentious public comment period. More than 160 people testified in Lansing in the spring, with dozens more weighing in Wednesday at a packed board meeting. The board, which earlier received some 13,000 comments in writing or by phone, plans to vote in the afternoon.

Recommendations to schools include protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from harassment, violence and discrimination. Schools should support the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs, incorporate LGBT topics throughout their "educational culture" and offer professional development opportunities to all employees on issues affecting LGBT students, according to the guidance.

It declares that when schools and parents respect a student's gender identity, the student "is more likely to learn and thrive." It says students, themselves, are best situated to determine their gender identity and that outside confirmation from medical and mental health professionals is not required.

The guidance cites the U.S. Department of Education's interpretation that a 1970s sex discrimination law makes it illegal to discriminate against transgender students. It also urges schools to:

—carefully consider on a case by case basis whether to inform parents that their child is transgender if that child hasn't come out to the parents.

—make "reasonable and good faith" efforts to address transgender students by their chosen names and the corresponding pronoun when asked by the student or parents.

—give transgender students access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities in accordance with each student's gender identity. Any student, regardless of the reason, should have access to a unisex or single-user bathroom. A student who wants more privacy could request an adjusted changing scheduled or the use of a private area such as a nurse's office or gym teacher's office.

—let transgender students participate in physical education classes and intramural sports in accordance with their gender identity. The same rule "generally" should apply to interscholastic sports, but eligibility is determined by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts said Wednesday that MHSAA rules do not prohibit girls from participating on boys teams, so the organization is not involved in matters involving the transitioning or confirming of boys who become girls. He said that because the rules do prevent boys from being on girls teams in state tournaments, the organization "will determine eligibility ... on a fact-driven, case-by-case basis."

"The intent is to provide as much opportunity as possible for transgender students without reducing overall opportunities for females in competitive athletics," Roberts said.

Board members were at odds before the vote.

Republican Richard Zeile said he thinks the most frequently bullied kids are obese, "not the sexual minorities." He said surveys show that 80 percent of all kids grades 4 through 8 report being bullied, and that being bullied is not a particular problem for LGBT children.

But Democrat Michelle Fecteau said LGBT students are "very vulnerable" and it is "nonsensical" to argue they should not be protected because other groups of students also are at risk.

"It's the LGBT community that have been incredibly vilified — told that they are deviants, told that they are ungodly ... disowned by family members," she said. "Just being aware of some of things that are happening to this group should be recognized."

In August, a federal judge in Texas blocked the Obama administration's directive that public schools let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.