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Michigan Dept. of Education LGBTQ, gender training blasted by Dixon, Whitmer

Teacher training videos by the Michigan Department of Education about LGBTQ issues have caused a stir, prompting criticism from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican opponent Tudor Dixon.
  • Training for teachers intended to help them assist students dealing with gender issues or coming out
  • Some say it went too far, suggesting teachers not tell parents about their child's gender orientation and avoid 'binary' terms
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration called for changes after criticism from Republican opponent Tudor Dixon

The Michigan Department of Education is under fire from both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, after training videos emerged suggesting teachers not tell parents about their child’s gender orientation.

In the videos from the state, one trainer suggests that teachers can talk with a parent about an LGBTQ child’s suicidal thoughts without having to tell them about their gender identify of orientation even if it played a role in their distress.

Watch the training:

After Christopher Rufo, conservative writer who worked to turn the concept of “critical race theory” into a slur, criticized the videos this week, Dixon called them "astonishing.”

"Does Gretchen Whitmer agree with me? Will she condemn this radical and dangerous nonsense? She owes parents an answer,” Dixon said on Thursday.

Friday afternoon, Whitmer's administration called on the Michigan Department of Education to make changes to “continue bringing parents' perspectives into the work you do.”

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Whitmer’s chief operating officer, Tricia Foster, rebuked the training in a letter to State Superintendent Michael Rice, who had spent Thursday and Friday defending the instruction.

Foster told Rice the training video “went outside of that scope” in terms of parent perspectives. 

“We urge you to review your trainings to ensure they comply with all applicable regulations, maintain department guidelines, and are reflective of best practices,” Foster wrote.

The videos, moderated by two educational contractors and available beginning in the 2021-22 school year, outline who the LGBTQ community are and offer insight and techniques for helping teachers educate the students while being respectful of their differences and needs.

Surveys show 1 in 8 students identify as LGBTQ, a population which are also far more likely to face physical threats, get poor grades or consider suicide. The department said Friday that more than 1,000 educators have sought out this training annually.

The Department of Education had defended the trainings as part of an ongoing effort to “provide safe, supportive, and inclusive school climates where all students can thrive—especially students who identify as LGBTQ+.”

Among other things the training sessions recommend: 

  • Calling students by the name and pronouns they ask to be used
  • Intervening when hearing anti-LGBTQ comments 
  • Including subject-specific and age-appropriate content in lessons about LGBTQ people
  • Believing students when they say they are being bullied, harassed or excluded.

In her letter, Whitmer’s aide did not cite specifics about where she felt the training crossed the line.  

Dixon and Rufo, the conservative writer, focused on several areas they said were objectionable.

In one video, a teacher asked if they are required to tell a parent about their child’s gender orientation or pronouns if they are aware of a student’s suicidal thoughts.

In the video, trainer Kim Phillips-Knope says teachers have a duty to report suicidal thoughts from any student, including an LGBTQ one. 

She says teachers “can also talk to parents, though, about like that ‘your kid is having suicidal thoughts,’ without outing them, without saying why,” Phillips-Knope said.

“You can say, ‘We have some concerns, your child has shared this,’ [but] I would 1,000 percent recommend working with the student to let them guide that process.”

Dixon claimed that meant the state was recommending that teachers “hide important information from parents about their children…”  and Rufo said the state was telling teachers “how to facilitate the sexual transition of children under their care, while keeping the process a secret from parents.”

The department, in a statement released Friday afternoon, forcefully rejected those claims, saying the videos did not do what Rufo asserted and calling his conclusion “patently false and deliberately divisive.”

In another video that drew the ire of Rufo and Dixon, a teacher from Oak Park suggests teachers avoid using “binary” gender terms like “boys and girls” because not all students feel they fit in one of two categories.

Owen Bondono, who was Michigan’s teacher of the year in 2020-21, suggested using gender-neutral terms like “earthlings, team or scholars.” He also showed a list with more than a dozen other terms, like y’all, folks, beautiful people and kiddos.

“They are targeting and confusing our children at the most critical time in their development, telling them to use outrageous gender neutral phrases like 'earthlings' instead of boys and girls,” Dixon said in her statement.

Bondono, in an email to Bridge, called the attack “pure fear mongering.”

“The experts — medical, psychological, educational — agree that supporting transgender and non-binary youth reduces the risk for suicide and drug use and increases the educational outcomes for these students,” he wrote. “They also agree that cisgender students are not harmed by inclusive language; in fact, they show a reduction in bias and (an) increase in empathy for other people.”

Late Friday, after the letter from the Whitmer administration, Department of Education spokesperson Martin Ackley issued a statement saying "we agree with the governor’s office that parents are children’s first teachers, and we appreciate their partnership.”

Joshua Cowen, a professor of education at Michigan State University, said he was not surprised that both Whitmer and Dixon criticized the trainings because it is politically expedient.

“I mean look, no one on the left or right ever lost an election criticizing MDE,” said Cowen. “They’re known as an education agency that does what it wants but has little authority. You’d be hard pressed to find a state education agency with less official authority than the one in Michigan.”

The election between Whitmer and Dixon is Nov. 8.

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