Jenison School Bathroom Policy is 'Harmful to Transgender Students'

ACLU of Michigan Responds to Transgender Students Discrimination Complaint

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

JENISON - The ACLU of Michigan is demanding Jenison Public Schools change its policy regarding bathrooms and transgender students after a transgender student in the district contacted the organization with a discrimination complaint.

An April 19 MLive article reports a student posted a message earlier this month on Facebook about only being able to use a staff bathroom at the school. The unidentified student was assigned the female gender at birth, but now identifies as male, according to the ACLU.

Superintendent Thomas TenBrink explained in the report why the student was using a staff bathroom. He said, "Transgender students have the option of using a gender-neutral restroom installed last summer for all students, the bathroom that corresponds with the gender assigned to them at birth or one of three unisex staff bathrooms."

Jay Kaplan, attorney with the ACLU of Michigan's LBGT Project, wrote a letter to TenBrink about why the district's bathroom options - which violate Title IX and Michigan State Board of Education policy - for transgender students are unacceptable.

The letter states, "We believe that such a policy is harmful to transgender students in that it stigmatizes them and impairs their ability to participate fully at school and to enjoy a safe learning environment. We also believe that permitting transgender students to access restrooms at the high school in accordance with the gender that they live with every day not only is in the best interests of these students, but is required by both federal anti-discrimination law and the constitution."

Staff members from the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health weighed in.

"Trans youth are often intentionally or unintentionally singled out based on their identity. In the case of bathrooms, if alternate options are offered to trans students, they should not be the only option offered to them. Though many schools intend no harm, making one or a few students go out of their way for their comfort or that of others is targeting them," said Erin Busbee, MOASH gay-straight alliance organizational development specialist.

TenBrink released a statement on behalf of the district in which he said it "does not discriminate against any student regarding any protected characteristics. Any assertion that the district has engaged in discriminatory practices with transgender or other classes of students is untrue."

TenBrink told MLive the student is not the only transgender student at Jenison High School, to which the unwritten bathroom guidelines apply. Kaplan said, at this time, the ACLU has not been contacted by any other transgender students from Jenison.

In response to TenBrink's statement denying any discrimination in their policy, Brittany Batell, MOASH program associate said, "The district's policy does not demonstrate ill-will, but merely a misunderstanding of best practices. Often by trying to accommodate transgender students' needs, administrators unwittingly end up singling them out. This special treatment for transgender youth, while well-meant, leads to feelings of separateness and alienation from the rest of their school community. The road to equality is paved with good intentions."

Although the intricacies of this case have not been shared, Taryn Gal, MOASH managing director, said, "This is a clear example of the need for education on gender identity, Title IX, and the importance of the Michigan Department of Education's Guidance for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ students."

Gal continued, pointing to their organization as a resource.

"When we don't know what we don't know, we can get into trouble - even when our intentions are positive. MOASH can provide all levels of training on these topics, so that educators and administrators can learn what questions to ask, what support to provide, and what constitutes violation of laws in place to protect students."

Right now, Kaplan said, "The attorney for the district has contacted us. They are reviewing the matter and will get back to us."

For more information about MOASH, visit http://www.moash.org/, call 517-930-0341, follow the organization on Twitter @InfoMOASH or visit the MOASH Facebook page. Contact the ACLU of Michigan online.
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