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ACLU sparks civil rights investigation into school district’s alleged mistreatment of trans students

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A student represented by the ACLU has filed a complaint against their Williamston, Michigan school district over their school’s bathroom policy.

Communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Vicki Levengood, confirmed the ongoing investigation for WLNS 6 News.

According to Jay Kaplan, LGBTQ+ Rights Project Staff Attorney for ACLU Michigan, Williamston Community Schools (WCS) is failing to follow its official policies regarding gender identity.

The school district faced enormous backlash in 2017 when the Board of Education adopted a policy to affirm transgender youth. A related policy provided students at WCS recourse if they felt uncomfortable in a specific bathroom.    

While the 2017 policy adopted by the school board didn’t explicitly address trans students, Kaplan says, it did support a transgender student’s ability to use their preferred bathroom.

The district was sued the following year, and the case was dismissed in 2020. Several board members also faced recall elections, and one lost their seat, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Trans students at Williamston Community Schools had previously used restrooms aligned with their gender identity, Kaplan says, but the once-settled policy was apparently undone sometime in 2022.

Kaplan adds both federal and state laws protect transgender students in the state.

“Michigan civil rights laws which have been interpreted by Michigan supreme courts to protect LGBTQ people under the category of sex would also apply here,” Kaplan says.

Without revealing the specific circumstances of the Williamston student’s complaint, Kaplan said treating people differently based on their gender or gender identity would run afoul of equal protection laws both federally and in Michigan.

“If a government entity seeks out a group of people or individual for differential treatment, then that could be a violation of equal protection,” Kaplan says.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Legislature expanded its civil rights protections to include gender identity and sexual orientation, effective in February 2024. 

In nearby Potterville, which is southwest of Lansing, the bathroom debate has also bubbled up, with school officials facing new criticism for a long-held policy allowing trans students access to restrooms that align with their gender identity. The new controversy originated on Facebook.

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