LGBT guidelines designed to protect most vulnerable students

You matter. You belong here. We care about you.

These are fundamental principles that undergird membership in any community or classroom. In Michigan's public schools – and throughout the nation – there is a group of students who have routinely heard the opposite message.

You are an abomination. We hate you. You'd be better off dead.

I'm talking about students across our state who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or who are questioning their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.

Reid Ellefson-Frank, a transgender high school student from Williamston, and his mother, Nicole Ellefson, spoke eloquently at a recent meeting of the State Board of Education in Lansing about the agony Reid faced as a transgender high school student. Reid said, “The fear and worry and anxiety ate away at me until I really couldn’t be a student anymore. I don’t think that fear should have any place in a school. But I don’t blame the students or the teachers. Their ignorance and cruelty weren’t their fault because they were never taught how to act when they met someone who wasn’t straight. ...I was treated like an alien because to them, that’s exactly what I was.”

Unfortunately, Reid’s experience is shared by thousands of American students across our state and nation every day. Watch Reid’s, his mother’s and others’ testimony starting at 16:50 here.

Data from the 2015 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) – 8.4 percent of all high school students in every community in our state – are 2.3 times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property than their non-LGB peers. They are 2.3 times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe. Forty-one percent of LGB students report being bullied on school property, and they are 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide.

You read that correctly: Four and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide. Reid was one of the lucky ones. He survived.

As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I travel the state to offer a classroom teacher's perspective on a variety issues that affect everyone. The plight of students who are LGBTQ is an area of much-needed improvement. Our school climates are not merely failing these already vulnerable kids. They are killing them, literally.

The disproportionate rate of suicide and homelessness among teens who are LGBTQ is a public health emergency and moral imperative that must be addressed now. As an educator, I am always mandated to provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for every one of my students. Not just the ones that look and act just like me. All of them.

Fortunately, the State Board of Education is proposing guidance on the creation of safe and supportive learning environments in schools to support students who are LGBTQ. The guidelines can be read, and residents’ opinions shared, here. The State Board of Education is engaged in the process of adopting these guidelines.

While these are merely suggestions, not proposed legislation, they are grounded in years of research and effective practice.

There is a significant amount of flexibility and local control that enable these guidelines to fit within the context of individual school communities. The guidelines state: "The overall goal here is to ensure the safety, comfort, and healthy development of all students – including transgender and gender nonconforming students – maximizing inclusion and social integration while minimizing exclusion and stigmatization."

Through offering guidelines and recommendations to support LGBTQ students, students who do not identify as LGBTQ are in no way disadvantaged or inconvenienced. In fact, schools that accommodate the needs of transgender students, for example, create a school-wide culture and climate that benefits all students. Accommodations for some do not in any way limit, restrict or infringe on the rights of the majority of students to enjoy the right to a public education as they always have.

Nicole Ellefson talks about the challenge of “holding your child as he tries to summon the will to live in the face of lack of acceptance and hatred...a situation I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Our children have shredded themselves psychologically and physically. They’ve killed themselves. All because society refused to accept them.”

The guidelines remind us of the commitment that we as teachers, students, staff and community members must have to the marginalized among us:

“The Top 10 in 10 Years strategic goals, the State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Education are committed to reducing the impact of high-risk factors and providing equitable resources and access to quality educational opportunities to meet the needs of all students."

It's time for safe and supportive learning environments for Michigan's LGBTQ students. Our kids and our communities are ready. Above all, we cannot afford to lose one more child to suicide. Reid Ellefson-Frank simply asks, “Help take the fear out of our schools.”

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

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Bobbie Stevens
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 7:02pm
What an eloquent statement. It makes me so sad to hear of the bigotry and abuse toward anyone because of gender issues, race issues or religious issues. The premise upon which this country was founded has been lost by so many.
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 5:00am
Why don't they built a separate but equal facilities for these queers, instead of trampling on the rights of the straight students. I believed straight students deserve their say also, and should begin to prepare for class action lawsuits against these ridiculous rules aim at forcing society to turn on each other. Stop it America! This is crazy!!!
Mon, 05/02/2016 - 9:59am
Right On!
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 9:29am
These guidelines are terrible. I hope the legislature prevents them from being implemented. Boys who identify as girls should be allowed to participate in sports on the girls’ teams? Idiocy. But the worst part is that this proposal allows schools to withhold the fact that a child has decided he or she is transgendered from the child’s parents -- Privacy and Confidentiality Regarding Disclosures. Transgender and GNC students have the right to decide when, with whom, and to what extent to share private information. When contacting the parent/guardian of a transgender or GNC student, school staff should use the student’s legal name and the pronoun corresponding to the student’s assigned sex at birth, unless the student or parent/guardian has specified otherwise.
Julie M
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 1:42pm
It's the law, students right to privacy. From the ACLU: "The Supreme Court has long recognized that the federal constitutional right to privacy not only protects an individual’s right to bodily autonomy, but also the right to control the nature and extent of highly personal information released about that individual. Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589, 599-600 (1977). This right to informational privacy restricts the government’s ability to disclose information about an individual’s personal matters, especially those matters that are protected by the Constitution from unwarranted government intrusion, such as contraception, abortion, marriage, family life, and sexual associations. Sterling v. Borough of Minersville, 232 F.3d 190, 196 (3d Cir. 2000) (“It is difficult to imagine a more private matter than one's sexuality and a less likely probability that the government would have a legitimate interest in disclosure of sexual identity.”); Bloch v. Ribar, 156 F.3d 673, 685 (6th Cir. 1998) (“Publicly revealing information [about sexuality] exposes an aspect of our lives that we regard as highly personal and private.”); Eastwood v. Dep’t of Corr., 846 F.2d 627, 631 (10th Cir. 1988) (right to privacy “is implicated when an individual is forced to disclose information regarding sexual matters.”). This right to informational privacy extends to students in a school setting. Students have the constitutional right to share or withhold information about their sexual orientation or gender identity from their parents, teachers, and other parties, and it is against the law for school officials to disclose, or compel students to disclose, that information. Even when students appears to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at school, it remains the student’s right to limit the extent to which, and with whom, the information is shared. C.N. v. Wolf, 410 F. Supp. 2d 894, 903 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (“[T]the fact that an event is not wholly private does not mean that an individual has no interest in limiting disclosure or dissemination of that information to others.”)." Depending on the circumstances, disclosing students’ sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents could also lead to physical abuse or homelessness.
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 4:27pm
Where is this coming from? Why now? Obviously there have always been kids that were different, different sexual preferences (whether considered proper or not), identity issues, cross dressing etc, etc but never to this extent where even bathrooms and sports teams become major topics. I knew young adults that admittedly were gay. They weren’t mistreated, but it was wasn’t considered something to celebrate and put on banners. Sex just wasn’t something that had to the be front and center defining characteristic it is today. Could it be that raising children in our over-sexualized, narcissistic, hyper-individualistic, celebrity worshiping society has something to with driving this? I am skeptical that it isn’t.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 10:02pm
Whether you are for or against, I hope we can agree that these kids should be protected from threats and abuse.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:24pm
These guidelines are well written, and very thoughtful of people who often feel marginalized and at HIGH risk of violent victimization throughout their lives. The guidelines are a necessary addition to current practice, in order to protect the dignity and safety of all our people, regardless of the circumstances they were born into, and have no more control over than what color their eyes are, or how tall they will become. The children and adults these guidelines are specifically designed to protect have walked this planet for 1000's of years. This is not new. What is new is talking about it out loud, and recognizing individuals for their individuality and unfortunately, their vulnerability. Children may need privacy for a number of reasons. They deserve to feel safe at school, regardless of color, creed, economic status, cognitive ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The dignity and protection these guidelines offer should be given to all students, faculty, and the public at large, in every district, county, state, and nation. This is an issue because LGBTQ people are tired of being beaten, ostracized, marginalized, homeless, grossly underemployed for their abilities, and often brutally murdered, just for existing. Families of these people are tired of being marginalized as well, and of trying to hug away the hurts, rejections, cuts and bruises, because others are mean, uneducated, small minded, and maybe, for NO good reason, afraid. As I read these guidelines, I wonder at some level, why we have to specify that a particular group of people should have to be identified as deserving of the same treatment we expect for everyone else. If we take out the LGBTQ, and just talk about people, I would hope there would be overwhelming consensus that this is good. If this was to address another particular group, say children with cognitive impairment, emotional impairment, extreme poverty, or skin that comes in a variety of colors, I doubt people would object. Imagine, pulling your student from a school because they have to share a bathroom with a cognitively impaired student that doesn't understand socially imposed boundaries. (Remember those portables out back, where the "special" students were "kept", and then mainstreaming education to include them?) Imagine, home schooling your student because a person is allowed to wear a religious symbol in contrast with your own. That is a parent's prerogative, and still would be, even with these guidelines. Public schools need to serve the public. Does anyone remember when the little black girl had to be escorted to school by federal agents, because the white parents didn't want her there? Or the scandal when the first married couple was shown in bed together on TV? She was not the first black child to walk the planet. The Brady's were not the first couple to share a bed. My guess is that if a community school, which maintains the ability to adopt any, all, or none of the recommended guidelines, is homogeneous on all levels that community chooses to measure, it will continue to be so. My guess is there are not very many of those. Even if you think your school is, statistically it is not likely. Schools that have diversity will continue to have diversity, regardless of how that is measured. Asking your boy how he would feel about a girl in the bathroom is silly. He won't know the person has a vagina, unless he is looking, and if so, who is the deviant engaging in threatening behavior? The person who is using a bathroom consistent with their identity, or the person looking at other people's genitalia without permission? If the school district has over 1000 people living in it, odds are extremely high that there is a transgender person in the midst. The odds are even greater that there is a gay person nearby. There are probably people of mixed ethnic breeding, and varying economic and cognitive levels too. It is likely there is a felon in the area, in addition to spouse abusers, child molesters, and drug addicts. The community may not know it, because these people are fitting in, hiding it well, or, because they are so uncomfortable with perceived local bigotry and hatred that they choose drug abuse, partner abuse, and possibly suicide over expressing how they really feel. Thank you to the person or persons who were willing to draft this proposal, and may the people of this state see the value of all people in a public education setting, keeping them safe, and treating them with the dignity and respect that all kinds of humans deserve.
Rebecca Wetell
Sun, 07/23/2017 - 4:50pm

I enjoy reading the post, I think it sad that these kids have to experience this kind of hate from their fellow peers and other people. I completely agree that teachers and other students are being educated about the LGBTQ community. I know this is a very touching topic, but it is very important that people form this community be treat as any regular person. I think we should see people as human that God create, not by their sex, race, religion and sexuality.