Williamston Community Schools Gender Identity Lawsuit
Edward W. Reynolds et al. v. Greg Talberg et al.
This article was last updated on: August 13th of 2021
Campaign signs used during the November 2018 recall election against the WCS Board of Education.
"Not only did board members introduce unnecessary havoc into our community, they also ignored us. Eighty plus percent of in-District email correspondence and public comment raised reasonable objections to 8011. One student even submitted a petition with over 220 WCS student signatures urging the Board not to adopt 8011... They did not listen. Most noticeably Christopher Lewis sometimes didn’t even look at a speaker once during their entire public comment."
- Plaintiff Lori Johnecheck on the gender identity policies and board's actions, 2018.
"An effort is currently underway to recall four members of the Williamston Community Schools Board of Education – Sarah Belanger, Nancy Deal, Dr. Chris Lewis and Greg Talberg. We are the targets of this recall effort... As you decide whether or not to support this recall effort, our hope is that you base your decision on facts. We encourage you to make a decision founded not on fear and cynicism, but on hope and courage."
- Former Board President Greg Talberg on the recall election, 2018.
Beginning in September of 2017, the Williamston Community Schools Board of Education began to draft policies on gender identity for the district. When the final draft was passed, it became the first school district in the area to implement a policy regarding transgender and non-conforming students. The initial draft included policies on pronouns, addressing students, gender identity, and access to gender-segregated facilities & athletic activities. However, the policies on pronouns and addressing students were eventually dropped, in favor of focusing solely on the other policies.
Since most WCS Board of Education meetings can be attended by the public, many students and their families attended the meetings focused on the new gender identity policies. In December of 2017, it was reported that over 200 people attended these board meetings that took place during September and October of 2017. In fact, there was one meeting at Williamston Middle School which had to be housed in the cafeteria instead of the typical room used for the board meetings, since there were over 150 people present. However, other gatherings on the subject occurred outside of the school setting too. In late September, the Great Lakes Justice Center held an event at St. Mary's Catholic Church of Williamston to publicly discuss why they believe the drafted policy to be "unacceptable". More than 100 people attended this meeting. David A. Kallman attended this meeting to represent the interests of the Great Lakes Justice Center, and was interviewed by local news outlet Fox 47 News on several occasions.
During October of 2017, the original proposal by the school board was introduced. A part of the proposal suggested allowing students to "assert a gender identity without informing their parents", which caused great controversy. It was later removed. However, further revisions would be made, eventually resulting in the policies below:
The Policies and School Board Votes
On November 2nd of 2017, after weeks of postponement, the school board voted on the new policies in two seperate votes. The first part proclaims that WCS will respect the gender identity that each student asserts, and the second allowed students to request an alternative bathroom or lockeroom space. You can read the policies in their entirety here. Both of the votes implementing these policies were a 6-1 decision, six in favor, one against.
- Greg Talberg (Board President)
- Christopher Lewis
- Sarah Belanger
- Nancy Deal
- Joel Gerring
- Kathy Hayes
- Jeffrey West (Board Vice President)
Despite the landslide vote, the gender identity policies continued to stir enormous controversy. In fact, the following day, board member Joel Gerring resigned from his position on the school board, and claimed that this situation was a contributing factor.
In October of 2017, before the final version of the policy had event been drafted, Williamston resident Jonathan Brandt filed a recall petition against Greg Talberg. It was shot down by county officials. In the months that followed, Brandt submitted two more recall petitions (this time targeting four members of the board), both of which were shot down, mainly for the petition language. A fourth and fifth were filed on January 9th 2018 and May 3rd 2018. Finally, on June 19th 2018, his sixth recall petition was approved. This approved petition targeted Board of Education members Greg Talberg, Christopher Lewis, Sara Belanger, and Nancy Deal. It did not target Joel Gerring or Kathy Hayes, despite the fact that they voted in favor of the policy. This was because Gerring had resigned, and Hayes was too close to re-election to be legally targeted by a recall election. While the Board of Education fought off the initial petitions, Greg Talberg announced on June 29th 2018 that they would not be appealing the final recall petition, believing it to be a waste of taxpayer dollars, as over $1,500 had already been spent on the issue.
Supporters of the recall included many of the adults suing the school in the lawsuit mentioned above. A few made public statements on the issue, which were recorded by local news outlets. A Facebook group called "Williamston for Truth" was created for the recall effort. Those supporting the recall effort hoped it would result in one or both of the policies being overturned. Some believed that the language used in the policies allowed students to "recognize a student's identified gender without parental involvement", even though legislation on that was removed during the drafting process.
Notable opponents of the recall movement included Narda Murphy, former superintendent of Williamston Community Schools.
Recall Election Results
The recall election occurred on November 6th of 2018, just over one year after the gender identity policies were passed.
- Sarah Belanger won her recall election with 2,966 votes vs her opponent Debbie Hutchison who had 2,397 votes.
- Christopher Lewis won his recall election with 2,835 votes vs his opponent Craig Hagelberger who had 2,516 votes.
- Nancy Deal won her recall election with 3,083 votes vs her opponent Walter Holm who had 2,279 votes.
- Greg Talberg lost his recall election with 2,653 votes compared to his opponent Karen Potter's 2,711 votes. As a result, Karen Potter took his place on the school board. However, she was not given the role of board president.
The four WCS Board of Education members targeted in the recall election.
On January 19th of 2018, five Williamston parents and three students sued the six board members that voted for the gender identity policies, as well as Williamston Community Schools as a whole. This was accomplished with the support of the Great Lakes Justice Center. The plaintiffs claimed that the new policies infringed on their 1st amendment rights, infringed on religious freedom, violated due process, and that the school board had no legal right to pass the gender identity policies. On February 12th of 2018, Williamston Community Schools filed a motion to entirely dismiss the lawsuit, citing the following reasons:
- All claims of injury were entirely hypothetical.
- The policies do not violate the plaintiffs' first amendment rights.
- The plaintiffs failed to identify "fundamental rights" that were interfered with.
- There was no violation of Title IX.
- The school district is required to address bullying through school policy.
- The individual defendants (school board members) are covered under qualified immunity.
Around this time, the American Civil Liberties Union began to get involved. On March 12th of 2018, organizations Stand with Trans and Williamston High School Gay-Straight Alliance submitted an appeal to join the lawsuit, thanks to backing from the ACLU. These groups also called for the lawsuit to be dismissed. Their motion to intervene was partially approved by the court on July 12th of 2019. The WHS Gay-Straight Alliance was allowed to join the defendants, but Stand with Trans was not. In the months prior, it was reported that two of the three students involved in the lawsuit were pulled out of the school by their parents, and this was listed as an injury in the lawsuit. On October 30th of 2020, the United States District Court Western District of Michigan Southern Division granted Williamston Community School's motion to have the lawsuit entirely dismissed. The court claimed the plaintiffs lacked standing and any real injuries. This brought an end to the lawsuit.
Final Outcome and Later Events
The policies that sparked this whole controversy still remain in effect today, but the school board is still divided. In addition to the gain made in the recall election, Jeffery West was re-elected as a trustee on January 1st 2019 (after leaving the board at some point). Julie Conley was also elected in January 1st 2019, backed by Williamston for Truth. However, Karen Potter (who defeated Greg Talberg in the recall election) resigned on October 31st of 2019. Earlier that year, it was reported that Potter was "anonymously exposed" for campaign finance violations.
Many of the board members involved in the controversy are still on the WCS Board of Education. Nancy Deal would eventually become president of the WCS Board of Education, and Sara Belanger eventually became vice president. Christopher Lewis remains board treasurer. While Greg Talberg would never return to the school board, he remained a teacher at Howell Public Schools and was later appointed to the Return to School Advisory Council by Governor Whitmer in 2020.