Former Williamston Superintendent Talks Community, School Impacts of Hate

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories that will review the implementation of a gender-inclusive policy adopted at a local school district, and how other communities/school districts have fared in similar pursuits. The first story on how the policy came to be and what it’s meant to some families in the community can be viewed here.

Narda Murphy had been a resident of Williamston since 1979 and was involved in the school district in several capacities prior to becoming superintendent in 2010. Recently retired, she has been watching the community debate over the school’s implementation of a gender-inclusive policy and can’t help but be concerned about the impact the negativity will have on district and community as a whole.

“You don’t tear down others to solve a problem, and I feel like on personal levels, people have been attacked, and the school district has been given this (perception),” Murphy said. “If someone feels like there’s something going on in the district and they want to share it with the board, that’s fine, but it’s how you do it and what you do with it afterward.”

In November, Williamston Community Schools’ Board of Education added protections for students, teachers, faculty and volunteers as it relates to gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. As conversations at the state and federal level continued about creating more inclusive policies to keep schools a safe space for students of all backgrounds, Williamston followed suit and began the process of revising its policies.

“Anytime there’s a possibility for a sub-population, you need to provide a policy,” Murphy said. “These same policies are in other districts, maybe with different names.”

For parents of transgender children or transgender students who had previously attended the decision was a sigh of relief to ensure every student could succeed regardless of how they identify.

But others are fighting the district’s decision tooth and nail by taking the district to court and seeking to recall Board members who supported the inclusive policy.

Indeed, Williamston is the latest target of anti-LGBTQ efforts led by attorney David Kallman, who has repeatedly fought efforts by schools and local communities to be more inclusive by adopting such non-discrimination policies. Kallman has led lawsuits in the City of Jackson and Howell Public School District and the Highland Schools Board of Education, to name some.

Simultaneously, a group of parents opposed to the changes enacted by the Williamston Board seek to recall every member of the board who supported it. Kallman’s lawsuit claims that Williamston’s inclusive policy is actually exclusionary to other students and could infringe upon a “religious liberty,” – something Tim Mullins, an attorney representing the district, is seeking to dismiss in court based on insufficient evidence of actual harm or infringement.

Because of the ongoing lawsuit, current Williamston Superintendent Adam Spina was not immediately available for comment.

“It isn’t exclusionary at all. All kids have to be given equal opportunity. We’ve worked hard as a district of creating these individual pathways of success, recognizing that not every kid needs everything,” Murphy said of the lawsuit. “Although there’s a frame, when a student within that frame needs a different pathway, it’s created (for them).”

Murphy pointed to the fact that the district’s handbook also includes policies for athletes, kids with allergies or health problems, for special education students, and so on.

But perhaps most disheartening for Murphy, who reiterates how central the district is to the community as a whole, is the “ripple effect” she said could impact both the district and the community.

“What I fear is the school district’s funding is based on student count, and when you see a negative number out there, what effect will that have? We have stats on the kids and what they do when they leave … we were in the top 95 percent of kids who grow over a year,” Murphy said of a New York Times study on true achievement data across schools nationally.

She continued, “That’s significant. That’s about the heart and core of any school system – learning. If there were huge problems with bullying or anti-social behaviors, you wouldn’t have that. You can’t have achievement and emotionally upset children. It doesn’t work.”

Further, Murphy raised concerns about the impact the divide over this change to its policies would affect teacher retention and continued success of the district that has worked diligently to get where it is.

“They are really compassionate and dedicated employees, and I think that’s what makes us a dedicated school system. I can’t believe there isn’t some hurt (by negative attention), but if they have it, they won’t show it,” Murphy said of the problems the lawsuit and community divide could have inside the district. “Regardless of their belief, it won’t get in the way of what they do for kids.”

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson