News Story

Michigan school training video threatens teachers with harassment charges over pronouns

Teachers urged to disregard parents

A training video shown at a fifth and sixth grade school in the Okemos Public Schools district advises school employees to use a student’s preferred name and pronoun, even if that is against the wishes of the student’s parents. It warns that teachers who do not do this are at risk of harassment claims.

The 16-minute video, shown to staff at a May 2 meeting, features Lara Slee, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Okemos Public Schools, as the main speaker.

“In consultation with our legal team, we have found that the student has the right to be called by their chosen name and pronouns even if parents disagree,” Slee said in the video. “So if you’re trying to do right by the student and the parents are mad about it, the district will support you.”

School leaders are working to make it board policy to change a student’s name in Powerschool Learning, an educational technology platform, if requested by the student.

“If you’re in the classroom as a teacher, a good suggestion is to start the year off with a survey to ask students what they want to be called, if it’s something other than what is on the class roster, and which situations do they want to be called by that name,” Slee said. “Sometimes they may ask you to use a different name with their parents, and as educators in our system we put students’ rights at the forefront. So if that’s what the student wants then that’s what we will do as much as we can to protect their safety and to honor their identity.”

Ben DeGrow, the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, said that gender training sessions becoming more common in schools, although it’s difficult to determine how widespread they are in this state.

Michigan Compiled Law 380.10 states, “It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children. The public schools of this state serve the needs of the pupils by cooperating with the pupil's parents and legal guardians to develop the pupil's intellectual capabilities and vocational skills in a safe and positive environment.”

In the video, Slee warns staff that research says students in the LGBTQ population, and transgender students specifically, having a high risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.

“They have found that students who are in environments where we are using their correct name and we are honoring the pronouns they are asking us to use, that’s actually suicide prevention,” Slee said. “You don’t have to be perfect, nobody’s perfect, but we do need you to try to honor the wishes of our students. If we continue to not call them by the right name, or not gender them correctly using the pronouns that they are requesting, that could potentially fall under our harassment policy, and we don’t want to go there, so just do your best.”

Slee uses a video from titled “Range of Gender identities” and a chart called “Unpacking the Alphabet.” The video claims there are four parts of a person’s identity: sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

“People often mix together the four different parts of a person’s identity and think of them as connected or the same thing when in fact they’re four very different ingredients,” Slee said.

Slee then showed another video from, called “What are pronouns?”

“Actively ignoring someone’s pronouns could have harmful effects on their confidence and self-esteem,” the video says. “For some people, pronouns may change from time to time, which means you may want to check in regularly, just to make sure you’re being respectful.”

Slee encouraged staffers who are unsure about a student’s preferred pronouns to use the word “they.” Slee also said that school employees should state their own pronouns when meeting new students, so that it isn’t awkward if they have to ask someone’s pronouns later.

Slee said the district is striving to have schools belong to everyone, despite their differences, and to create a place where everyone feels safe in school.

“It doesn’t matter how you or I feel about students and their names, what pronouns they want to use, how they express themselves in their clothing, or their hair,” Slee said in the video. “It’s really just our job as educators and people within the world of education to honor our students’ identities and wishes and make sure that they are able to be their authentic selves in our schools.”

In an email to Michigan Capitol Confidential, Slee said that the purpose of the gender-identity training video was to address a number of questions from administration and staff. Concerns from staffers who have moral or personal qualms with calling a student by a name or pronoun that does not match the person’s birth sex would be considered on a case-by-case basis, Slee said.

“Working with caregivers is always our starting point when it comes to helping students. Our primary focus is the safety of students — psychologically and physically — and our charge is to provide learning environments that center on students' needs,” Slee said. “We approach the instances in which caregivers do not want their child to be called by a different name on a case-by-case basis.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.