When Ingham County voters head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 6, they'll find a usual list of candidates on their ballot everywhere except where it concerns the Williamston school board. In that election, voters will find that four of the seven existing members have been targeted for recall: Board President Greg Talberg and Nancy Deal, whose terms would have expired in 2020; and Sarah Belanger and Chris Lewis, who would have been in office until 2022. The recall of these candidates concerns two 2017 policies they each supported — 8011 and 9260 which were adopted Nov. 6 of 2017 — that allow students who are questioning their gender identity to get case-specific resources from their school and for access to private, non-gender-segregated restroom facilities.
A Need Seen
Lewis said that as early as late 2016, the issue was one that board members saw a need to address.
"We started to see more and more faces that were popping up across the country of students that were concerned about accommodations and school districts that did not have accommodations or policies in place that would recognize transgender students," Lewis said. "We didn't feel as a board that we were educated enough on the issue to understand what kind of need was out there, so we did bring in some experts to do some training with the board, not only to look at the legal aspects and the legal issues, but also some of the other issues that go around that."
Talberg added that it was at an event at Williamston High School where "some of our kids indicated they felt threatened" about being LGBTQ that spurred the board on to create inclusive policy measures.
"So we actually had someone from the Department of Education from the State of Michigan come to Williamston Community Schools and talk to some of our students," Talberg said. "And they indicated that the students did feel threatened so we decided as a board to take some action on this issue."
It was then that the board's policy committee began to create policy 8011, referencing existing policies in places like Ann Arbor and Philadelphia. Over several months the committee crafted a draft of 8011 and during an early fall board meeting last year stated that they would like to take it to a vote at the board's next meeting. That's when Lewis said a community member voiced her concern.
"Now, she asked for copies of the policy and after that she started posting the draft policy in community forums and, basically, got a lot of people that were not for the policy up in arms and wanting more buy-in and talking about it," Lewis said. "There were a lot of people who felt we had not been talking about it enough to the public."
That's when the school board scheduled an open forum to expand discussion on the issue that turned into two separate meetings.
"They were highly-attended by people on both sides from inside the community, outside the community and in those conversations we heard both sides of things," Lewis said. "We actually made adjustments to policy 8011 as well as the other policy on bathroom and shower usage."
That other policy is 9260. According to former Williamston School Board member and Michigan Association of School Boards Assistant Legal Counsel Joel Gerring, it was designed to help compromise with those on the other side of the issue.
"This was instead of just being for transgender students and being comfortable to choose any bathroom they want to use, this is for any student who says, 'I no longer want to use that mens bathroom because a transgender boy uses that bathroom and that makes me uncomfortable,'" Gerring said. "They could say that and they could be given use of another facility nearby, maybe a faculty restroom because they felt like their policy rights were being violated by the mere presence of trans person being in there or possibly entering."
Gerring himself was a board member who supported passing of the policies but resigned they day after the vote. The final draft of 8011 doesn't actually mention the word "transgender," though it originally was titled "Transgender and Non-Conforming Students."
"We ended up with 8011 which really doesn't come right out and say what we're doing for the transgender students," he said. "It's not a definitive guarantee that it'll be granted in every situation, unlike the Ann Arbor policy."
The current recall measures were put forth by parents who felt the language included in the policies was unclear and therefore jeopardized their access to their children's affairs, but this isn't the first time that a recall proceeding was attempted. According to a Lansing State Journal article, on Jan. 9, 2018, the election commission voted 2-1 to approve recall petitions from 2017. However, the four members of the board filed an appeal against the Ingham County Election Commission because they claimed the language of the petitions wasn't "factual" or "clear." On May 3, Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Patrick Conlin ruled the language of the petition wasn't valid.
"They failed over a dozen times submitting language that was neither factual nor clear," Talberg said. "Now we're here, they finally got the language approved."
The Ingham County Election Commission approved the language on the newly-created recall petitions on June 19 of this year, and the petitioners submitted the required signatures per board member by the required date of Aug. 3. Though just like last time the board members could have appealed the petitions, they chose not to and their seats are up for re-election on Nov. 6.
"Well, you know, when we voted somebody in the audience yelled out 'recall,' so they made those threats all along, that if we go down this path that recall was definitely a possibility," Talberg said of the initial vote on the policies last year. "So we knew from the start that there were people adamantly opposed to this policy and no matter what compromises we made or what language we added, they were determined that recall was the path they were going to take because we brought the issue up in the first place."
For instance, a parent in the school district, Lori Johnecheck, wrote an Op-Ed in the Lansing State Journal a few weeks after the confirmation of the recall proceedings. She claimed that the language included in the policies was "vague" and jeopardizes "student privacy" by not including language that said "everyone will use the bathroom, shower and changing facility that matches their biological sex," despite the policy's intended support of transgender students. Johnecheck also cited support for the Facebook page Williamston for Truth which she said has "the rest of the story." The Facebook page's moderators regularly post content that supports the recall of all four of the policy-supportive candidates. They also support the election of candidates Walter Holm, Karen Potter, Debbie Hutchison and Craig Hagelberger as replacement candidates in the recall election. Neither did the Williamston for Truth-endorsed candidates nor the page's moderators respond to BTL's request for comment.
Weight On Wording
The main concerns of parents regarding the two adopted policies seem to be in policy 8011 usage of the words "and/or" in this sentence:
"WCS 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."
The argument of the pro-recall parents against the usage of "and/or" before "parent/guardian" contends that the board is aiming to exclude parents from being notified if a student were to request different bathroom accommodations because they came out as transgender. In her Op-Ed, Johnecheck addressed this issue.
"You will notice 'and/or' language in paragraph two of 8011. The 'or' leaves room for the school to decide whether parents will be contacted. You won't find qualifying language in 8011 that expressly mandates parental notification. Because of this, it's possible for a minor to be recognized as the opposite sex at school without parents knowing."
However, the writers of the policy stand by their decision to put in "and/or." In fact Talberg cited it as "good policy language" because of exceptions like domestic abuse or if a student is over 18. Gerring said he understands the concerns of the parents, but agrees with Talberg.
"Parents have a fundamental right to be involved in the education of their children and to be involved in the decisions regarding their safety and welfare while they're at school. And that doesn't change. Williamson cannot create a policy that changes that," Gerring said. "The only reason that policy has an 'and/or' — and a lot of district policies read that way — is because you have got to give your administrator — in this case the superintendent — the flexibility to make certain calls and the only time they would make a call on whether or not a parent would be immediately informed or not informed, is when the student reveals something."
He went on to say that many policies today feature such writing because in decades past students would confide in teachers or administrators and say they were pregnant.
"They would indicate that they needed help, that they were pregnant, but then they would say, 'You cannot tell my parents, my dad will kill me,' or 'I'm being abused at home, if my parents find out that I'm gay, or 'I'm pregnant I'm going to get physically abused.' That is the one situation that an administrator has to be able to make a judgment call, 'Is this believable? Is what this student is telling me true?'" Gerring said. "‚Ä¶ that's why the 'or' is there."
Gerring emphasized, too, that in the case of transgender students — the original group who stood to benefit from 8011 — the likelihood that they would request bathroom facilities but request not to tell their parents is very slim.
"By the time a transgender student is coming to a school district and requesting accommodation like a bathroom accommodation, they're already out. That's sort of the end of the transgender transitioning process," Gerring said. "You can be gay and hide it from your parents, you can be pregnant — for a period of time anyway — and hide it, but being transgender is a journey to the outward manifestation of what you feel inside, and, when that's the case, there is no hiding that you've made this transition. By the time you're making a request for the bathroom accommodation, nine times out of 10, the parents are sitting there right with the student as it's happening while they're making the request."
The community's outrage was significant enough that all four board members and Gerring as well, despite his resignation, are the targets of a lawsuit brought last January by community parents and represented by David Kallman of the conservative group Great Lakes Justice Center. Kallman claimed that the two policies went beyond the limits of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act which doesn't include protections for gender identity and ran counter to his client's religious beliefs.
"Common sense and common decency demand that biologically intact boys should not be showering with girls, should not be allowed to use girls' bathroom and locker room facilities, or take a girl's spot on an athletic team," said Kallman in a press release concerning the case. "Moreover, parents should not be denied critical health information about their children."
Jay Kaplan is the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. In March of this year, his organization filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit.
"We filed in Federal District Court for the western district and we filed the motion back in March to intervene and we mentioned the high school has a Gay-Straight Alliance and there's also a chapter of Stand with Trans that serves the Williamston Area," Kaplan said. "Our argument is that we want to represent their interests, because if a school district cannot pass a policy that protects LGBT students against discrimination this puts LGBT kids at risk for not only bullying but for harassment and being deprived of equal opportunity in education."
Currently, that motion to intervene has not yet been decided on by Judge Paul L. Maloney. It has been over six months and is still pending. Kaplan said that there have been other similar lawsuits in Michigan's history that were dismissed in federal district courts and he's hopeful that this one will proceed similarly.
"There was a lawsuit filed against the Howell School District several years ago by parents in the school district. One of their claims was that by having a nondiscrimination policy that violated their religious freedom in terms of the policies they wanted to instill in their children, and, as to that claim, a federal district court dismissed their claim," Kaplan said. "There have been other courts that have looked at this issue and felt that certainly, parents are entitled to hold the religious beliefs that they have but using that as a basis to challenge a nondiscrimination policy has not been found by federal courts that have looked at this issue."
Kaplan went on to say that there's been a recent uptick in the usage of religious beliefs as a way to allow discrimination in both local and national cases — something that he views as a serious threat to LGBTQ rights.
"It's been an effective tactic, it's been a tactic that certainly opponents are using. They lost on the issue of marriage equality, they have lost — for the most part — in terms of demonizing gay and lesbian individuals and some of the mistruths still no longer hold true, but they have found a vulnerable target: transgender people," Kaplan said. "Awareness of what it means to be transgender is less prevalent in general in society so they're acting upon that and they're focusing on the issue of bathrooms and they're using in terms of religious beliefs as a way to try to prevent pro-LGBT policies from taking effect, painting themselves as victims. And I see, particularly in Michigan, it's apparently a tactic from David Kallman and the Great Lakes Law Center as a way to try to prevent local entities from considering and supporting policies that are favorable to LGBT people."
Kaplan also said that in his work with the case he visited several of the Williamston school board meetings. He said he was struck by the blatant misunderstanding surrounding the transgender community by those who were most adamant about the board's recall.
"I attended two of the school board meetings where they discussed this policy and I'll tell you, I've been in my job for 17 years and I've attended a lot of public hearings. I have never heard such awful things being said about, particularly, transgender people," he said. "A lot of it was based on mistruths, based on fear, based on lack of knowledge and I think the bigger thing was the idea that their child might have to share a restroom with someone who is transgender seemed to be more of the motivating factor than anything else."
As Nov. 6 draws nearer, all four board members being targeted by the recall are in the midst of re-campaigning to hold their spots. Among other methods, the group now has a website that outlines all four of their campaigns and a dedicated Crowdpac that evenly splits campaign donations to the four of them. Right now, they are nearing the end of their $10,000 goal.
When asked what keeps him campaigning for his spot despite all the struggle, Talberg said it's the "high-achieving" and "high-functioning" school district he serves. He said that the primary benefit for Williamston voting for the existing incumbents is to maintain the forward "momentum" already in place.
"We have passed those policies that clearly indicate that we intend to and will be an accepting community so that's important," Talberg said. "I would encourage anyone who values inclusion and acceptance to support the current board and if you value the success and achievement of the district."
To find out more information about each of the targets of the recall visit http://keepwilliamstonboard.com. For more information about Williamston for Truth and their endorsed candidates visit their public Facebook page at gaybe.am/Kf.