How should Michigan schools treat their LGBTQ students? This has been one of the big questions of 2016. It is pitting lawmakers against one another, even within the same party. But it could leave the students stuck in the middle.
Being LGBTQ in Schools is a Challenge
LGBT students made up 8.4% of Michigan’s high school population in 2015. They are a vulnerable minority. 41% of LGBT students report being bullied. And they are 2.3 times as likely to skip school for safety reasons.
In-school harassment can cause depression and anxiety and can interfere with a student’s academic achievement and personal development. In fact, LGBTQ students are 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their cis-gender and straight counterparts. Students who are also marginalized in other ways, like those who belong to racial minorities or who have a disability, are at the highest risk of negative outcomes, including dropping out of school.
School administrators can make these problems worse by refusing to honor a student’s gender identity or expression. They often force students to use restrooms, locker-rooms and other gender-specific spaces inconsistent with their gender identity. They sometimes also have policies that force gay and lesbian students to remain closeted.
US Education Department Encourages LGBTQ Inclusion
In May 2016, the U.S. Education Department issued a “Dear colleague” letter providing guidance to schools across the country about how to address the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The guidelines encouraged school districts across the country to adopt inclusive policies and protect LGBTQ students against gender discrimination, bullying, and harassment.
But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was having none of it. Days after the letter went public, he wrote a letter to the Obama Administration, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Secretary of Education John King, calling for them to retract what he saw as “another prime example of federal overreach.” Then on July 8, he joined a coalition of 10 states suing the federal government over the policy.
Conflict Among Lawmakers
From the start, it was clear that Schuette did not speak for all of the Michigan government. Governor Rick Snyder refused to participate or allow Schuette to sue on behalf of the state. Instead, he appeared on behalf of the “people” of Michigan after Snyder’s office told him “Our time and attention is focused elsewhere right now.”
Michigan Department of Education’s Policies
On August 30, 2016, the Michigan Department of Education deepened the divide and put Schuette further in the minority. The state adopted a Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students. The statement adopted many of the same recommendations as the U.S. Education Department. It laid out recommended best practices for schools including:
- Adopting policies against harassment, violence, bullying, or discrimination for any reason including true or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
- Identify disparities and barriers to LGBTQ students’ educational experiences.
- Educating all staff on LGBT issues.
- Removing barriers to Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs).
- Provide opportunities for family engagement and support for LGBTQ students.
- Encourage respect for the human and civil rights of all people, including LGBTQ students.
- Designate an staff member per building who is conversant in LGBTQ issues as a contact person.
The Statement also encouraged schools to treat trans* and gender non-conforming students in keeping with their preferred names and gender pronouns. This includes access to restrooms, locker rooms, and gender-specific teams and clubs. The best practices allow students to request these accommodations even without parental consent or knowledge on a case-by-case basis.
The U.S. and Michigan education departments have come to recognize the importance of explicit protections for LGBT students. But as long as lawmakers like Bill Schuette continue the fight against inclusivity, students will be the ones stuck in the middle.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family lawyer at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She also advocates for students’ rights in Metro Detroit schools. If your student is facing resistance at school, contact Schmidt Law Services to schedule a free consultation.