People in Saline are heatedly debating the school district’s decision to have all its elementary classrooms show a video about a transgender child struggling with identity.
The district is participating in Friday’s county-wide reading of I Am Jazz, which explores reality television personality Jazz Jennings struggling with accepting female gender identity. Jennings was designated male at birth. The children’s book was co-authored by Jennings and Jessica Herthel and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas.
Students in Saline’s K-5 buildings are not reading the book but listening to a video of Washtenaw County leaders and students reading the book. Among the readers are the mayors of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Chelsea Superintendent Julie Helber and Saline High School student Oliver Chapman.
Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden said the district participates in the Washtenaw and Livingston County Transgender Task Force, which is behind the day of reading. The Washtenaw County Health Department is also participating in the program.
“We tend to support and participate county health initiatives when asked,” Graden said.
The district has gender nonconforming students at each of its elementary school buildings. Parents of these children want and need the district’s support, Graden said.
“These children and parents have real concerns. It’s our job to make sure the district is safe and supportive of all students, regardless of their identity,” Graden said.
Graden said the district has not prescribed any discussions to take place in the classroom after the viewing.
The community is divided on the decision to show the video in school.
Many parents are contacting administrators to express their support of the program. Many are opposed and have signed a petition to stop the program. And even though the district is preparing alternate activities for children whose parents do not wish for them to view the video, some parents are promising to keep their children home from school.
Adam Davis is removing his children from school that day. His chief concern is the content of the book.
“The issue that I have with this particular book hinges on the first third of it, where it lays out rules for gender conformance, such as girls like coloring and boys like toy trucks, and then goes on to suggest that if you are gender non-conforming you must be transgender,” Davis said.
He said the book reinforces stereotypes which could cause more bullying and cause kids to stop playing with their favorite toys for fear of peers questioning their gender.
“The schools should be the last place children should be told that they should only play with gender-appropriate toys and this message should certainly not come from authority figures in our public schools,” Davis said.
Nicolette Devine also took issue with the way the story equated certain traits with gender dysphoria.
“Just because you are a boy and you like the color pink and you like mermaids does not mean you are in the wrong body. Transgender is about those who feel that they are genuinely born into the wrong body, it goes beyond liking ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things.’ I would rather my child not come home tomorrow and start questioning himself as a person because a book told him that if he likes ‘girl things’ he might be transgender,” Devine said.
Others suggest it’s not the district’s place to influence how youngsters view controversial social issues. But there’s also a lot of support for the district’s decision.
Support for the District
Recent Saline High School graduate Ryan Farr said the backlash against the district’s decision is an example of why his gay, lesbian and transgender friends struggle in the community.
“The ignorance and fear from the people rallying to deny access to this book is the reason many LGBTQ children live in fear and self-hatred,” Farr said. “Step out of your own shoes and find a shred of empathy and acceptance. Everyone deserves to feel accepted and loved.”
One Student’s Struggles
The district has the full support of the mother of one transgender male in the district. The woman, who asked she not be named, has a child who was designated female at birth. The child was popular in school and ran in cross country in middle school. She said her child, for a long time, sensed something wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t until the age of 10 that her child began to understand what it was.
“By the age of 10, he knew, but he didn’t want to believe it,” the mother said. “But he knew as young as the age of five. He just didn’t have the words to explain it.”
He came out at the age of 13 and ran into problems made more difficult by his peers, she said. According to his mother, students in school refused to call him by his new name or refused to use the correct pronouns. She said her son was pushed and shoved in the hallways and often the target of verbal abuse.
Her son attempted suicide three different times. On the third attempt, in May of 2017, her son wrote a suicide note and left it to the school and then took 50 powerful pain killers.
“He was barely breathing when he was taken out of the school by paramedics,” she said.
When he returned to school he ran into more difficulty with classmates. According to the mother, Saline High School principal David Raft worked hard to accommodate her son. But she decided her son needed to leave Saline Area Schools. With the help of school administrators, he was enrolled in the early college alliance program at Eastern Michigan University.
“It’s been a remarkable difference. It’s a much more accepting environment,” she said.
She’s happy the district is showing I Am Jazz to elementary school students. She thinks a lesson like this might have helped her child.
“I think it’s wonderful. It’s important to teach children to accept each other and look past differences,” she said.
And for her child, the book might have helped him realize what he was struggling with at an early age.
“He wished he could have seen it or read it when he was younger. Maybe it would have helped him find the words to tell us earlier. He might never have blamed himself. It might have saved him a lot of heart ache,” she said.
She was asked about the opposition to the book. Undoubtedly, some parents are concerned that exposing their child to the book might cause confusion. Couldn’t a little girl who likes sports and tools hear this story and think she’s got a “girl’s body and a boy’s brain?” Or a little who likes pink and princesses think he’s transgender?
Given the struggles faced by her transgender son, and so many other transgender teens, isn’t that something to fear?
She said she understood why parents might be concerned, but said the fear was misplaced.
“People have an innate sense if they are a boy or girl. Watching a video or reading a book doesn’t change that,” she said.
How Will Students React?
Smita Nagpal, a licensed psychologist who is co-owner of Still Waters Counseling in Saline, agreed that parents have little to worry about. Nagpal said she expects children will have different responses.
“Some kids will laugh or giggle uncomfortably and others will empathize and feel bad for Jazz for having to deal with the difficulties she faced. Some will not relate to the topic at all and will be completely and utterly bored, while still others might start to put a name to their own experience of (trans)gender identity. All will come away with an idea of how someone different from other kids can struggle,” Nagpal said. “But parents can rest assured that none will develop a transgender identity having read this book any more than they would turn into a witch or wizard having read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
While youngsters can be suggestible, viewing a video won’t cause them to change their gender identity.
“Sure, there might be a kid or two out there who might ‘try on’ a different gender identity for a few days after having read the book. But by the age of five, kids have learned the difference between fantasy and reality,” Nagpal said. “The reality is that being transgender in this world is really hard! Jazz’s experience will testify to this fact. So, anyone who is not actually transgender will likely return to their true gender identity fairly quickly!”
School District Admits Communication Lacked
Some parents say the district didn’t do enough to communicate about the program.
“It was a one line in the middle of a weekly email,” said Jessica Herter. “One of the most controversial topics today shouldn't be delivered like that.”
Graden on Tuesday said information was emailed to parents last week. On Wednesday, in a mass email, the district’s board of education and administration admitted communication should have been better. (See the correspondence below).
The decision to show the video was not made at the board level. Graden said the decision was handled at the administration level.
Difficulty Navigating Sensitive Subjects
Tim Austin is the President of the Board of Education. He understands it was a controversial subject and that people were going to be unhappy, but he’s disappointed that an effort to create awareness and tolerance has instead created division.
“With 5,250 students plus parents it becomes difficult to navigate these sensitive subjects. This is a county-wide initiative to provide awareness, acceptance, and tolerance,” Austin said. “Sadly, I have read emails sent to the board as well as post on social media that bring out the worst of Saline, thankfully not all of them. Saline Area Schools is trying to do what’s best for all kids and allowing parents to opt their children out of the viewing if they feel inclined for religious, or being concerned about age appropriate material, or other various reasons are all valid.”
Austin encouraged parents to be role models for their children.
“Tolerance, acceptance, and awareness of our entire community’s views is a two-way street! Tolerance and acceptance of all starts at home. Let’s be the role models,” Austin said.
Below is the letter from the Saline administration and board of education.
This is a message regarding the upcoming reading of I am Jazz on Friday, December 7 at Harvest, Pleasant Ridge, Woodland Meadows and Heritage.
The Washtenaw County Task Force on Transgender Youth, in partnership with the Washtenaw County Health Department, has produced a video of various members of the greater Washtenaw community reading a children's book about a transgender student. The County and District’s goal is to support a positive school and community environment that recognizes the differences amongst all of us. We have transgender students in our elementary buildings. It is important that all students are supported on a daily basis.
We do understand that showing the I am Jazz video created by the Washtenaw County Health Department has been a catalyst for much discussion and debate on social media networks and venues throughout the District. We have certainly heard from parents and community members both supportive and questioning about the I am Jazz video.
We recognize that some parents would have liked a more direct notification and an opportunity for more dialogue about this matter. We have responded to make sure that all parents who wish for their child to participate in a 10 minute alternative activity are able to do so.
We have heard your concerns. Moving forward, we will improve our communication.
SAS Administration & Board of Education