John Austin: A Man For All Students

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I submitted this essay to the 2018 John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Essay Contest. The essay was recognized as one of five nationwide finalists. I submitted the essay through my AP Language &
Composition Class at Grand Ledge High School. Here's the link to the JFK Presidential Library news release on the essay contest winners:
https://www.jfklibrary.org/About-Us/News-and-Press/Press-Releases/2018-Essay-Contest-Winner.aspx

Submitted: May 03, 2018

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Submitted: May 03, 2018

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John Austin: A Man For All Students

By Isabella Gentilozzi

Grand Ledge High School

Grand Ledge, Michigan

“I'm sorry I wasn't able to be strong enough.” These were the final words of 17-year-old Josh Pacheco, a junior at Linden High School in Fenton, Michigan. Pacheco, a gay student, committed suicide in November 2012. According to his parents, Josh took his own life because he was constantly bullied at school (Schuch 2012).

At the time of Josh’s death, Michigan did not have any guidelines in place to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students from harassment. But that changed in 2016, when John Austin became the voice for LGBT students across the state.

Austin has dedicated most of his adult life to improving Michigan’s school system and bettering the educational experiences of young people. As an elected member of the State Board of Education, Austin recognized the struggles that LGBT students face. He knew that LGBT students are harassed, intimidated, and physically threatened every day. He knew that LGBT students often do not attend school because they feel unsafe. He knew the grades of many LGBT students are not comparable to those of heterosexual students. He knew that more than one-quarter of LGBT students have attempted suicide (State Board of Education 2016).

At the urging of teachers across the state, Austin decided that Michigan needed guidelines to help provide LGBT students a safe environment, where they could “live, learn, and thrive.” His decision to create guidelines protecting LGBT students from discrimination and harassment was unprecedented. “This is important for improving learning and life chances for a lot of our kids – let’s support them and bring forth a set of recommendations around a family of things schools can do to create a supportive environment for kids who we know have a greater risk of suicide, who are not achieving academically, who are sometimes not coming to school because they feel unsafe or ostracized,” Austin said (Complex 2016).

Austin’s decision to implement LGBT guidelines was both controversial and bold, especially when his name would be on the 2016 ballot for re-election to the State Board of Education. In fact, Austin could have waited until after the November 2016 election to develop the guidelines and present them for public comment. But Austin did not wait – and that’s why his actions were so courageous. Austin knew that delaying the guidelines would prolong the suffering of Michigan’s LGBT students. He knew that LGBT students needed protections in place sooner rather than later, even if it meant risking his position on the Board. Austin’s selfless actions demonstrated that “a man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality” (Kennedy 266).

Throughout 2015 and into early 2016, Austin worked diligently on the LGBT guidelines, which included procedures for transgender students to use school restrooms and locker rooms based on the gender with which they identify. However, when the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature learned of the guidelines in the spring of 2016, a political firestorm erupted. Anti-LGBT groups and conservative lawmakers began playing to the public’s fear of “little girls being assaulted in school bathrooms and locker rooms by boys pretending to be girls” (Eclectablog 2016).

Republicans waged a fierce campaign against Austin, in an effort to oust him from his 16-year seat on the State Board of Education. Austin was berated by lawmakers and the media at the local, state and national levels. A blog operated by conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson exclaimed, “John Austin wants to allow all students, regardless of parental or doctoral input, to choose their gender, name, pronouns, and bathrooms” (Eclectablog 2016). Political ads portrayed Austin as an enabler of child rape. Former Michigan Representative Tom McMillin called the guidelines an “assault” on students and parents. “Already there are reports in other countries and other parts of our country of mischievous boys taking advantage of this kind of policy to go into girls locker rooms and harass girls, bringing them to tears,” McMillin said  (Bourne 2016).

Republican lawmakers savagely tried to dismantle not only Austin’s 2016 re-election campaign, but also the efforts to protect Michigan’s LGBT students. The Legislature threatened to slash the State Board of Education’s funding, and even considered abolishing the Board entirely. In addition, one lawmaker introduced a proposal to undo the guidelines, if and when they were approved (Lessenberry 2016).

Austin was unfazed by the vicious attacks and forged ahead with the LGBT guidelines. As a man of morality and humility, Austin knew that Michigan could no longer ignore the educational crisis that LGBT students faced. He also recognized the state itself would suffer if the guidelines were not implemented. “When you choose to discriminate, you face the rightful wrath of the business and broader community,” Austin said. “Who wants to be a state that is a backwater where gay or trans people are viewed as non-existent or second-class? You’ve just lost those people from your state” (Complex 2016).

Adhering to his conscience and his principles, Austin presented the final LGBT guidelines to the State Board of Education in September 2016. The guidelines were approved by a 6-2 vote. “This is a victory, and we showed that we’re willing to stand up and do what it takes to protect every one of Michigan’s students,” Austin said. “We will take every step to ensure our LGBT students are given the same opportunities to succeed as others” (Austin 2016).

However, just two months later, Austin lost his seat on the State Board of Education in the November 2016 election. He attributed his defeat to the unfounded fears that were instilled among Michigan voters regarding the LGBT guidelines.

But despite the loss, Austin had no regrets. After the election, he proclaimed: “We fought hard for a vision to rebuild our public education system, make higher education accessible and affordable for all, and be a welcoming and inclusive state that respects the civil rights and dignity of our LGBT children” (Deveraux 2016).

Works Cited

Austin, John. Facebook, 14 Sept. 2016. 

www.facebook.com/JohnAustinBuildingMichigan/posts/517349268468302

Bourne, Lisa. “Michigan Board of Education: 'transgender' boys can use girls' bathrooms, showers.” LifeSiteNews, 19 Sept. 2016.

www.lifesitenews.com/news/michigan-board-of-education-opens-bathroom-shower-doors-to-transgender-stud

Devereaux, Brad. “Advocate for Transgender Students Loses Seat on State Education Board.” MLive.com, MLive.com, 11 Nov. 2016.

www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/11/transgender_student_advocate_o.html

Kennedy, John F., et al. Profiles in Courage. Harper Perennial, 2016.

Lessenberry, Jack. “Politics & Prejudices: Profile in Courage.” Detroit Metro Times, 2016.

www.metrotimes.com/detroit/politics-and-prejudices-profile-in-courage/Content?oid=2466440

“Michigan GOP Using Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry & Fear as Smokescreen for Destroying Democratic Control of State Board of Education.” Eclectablog, 10 May 2016.

www.eclectablog.com/2016/05/mich-gop-using-anti-lgbtq-bigotry-fear-as-smokescreen-for-destroying-democratic-control-of-state-board-of-education.html

Scarano, Ross. “How the Michigan State Board of Education Is Trying to Help LGBTQ Students Against ‘Backwater’ Legislation.” Complex, 31 March 2016.

http://www.complex.com/life/2016/03/michigan-board-of-education-guidance-trans-rights-john-austin-interview

Schuch, Sarah. “Parents blame bullying for son's suicide; Linden High School junior remembered for love of theater.” MLive.com, 4 Dec. 2012.

www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2012/12/parents_blame_bullying_for_son.html

“State Board of Education Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning  Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students.” 14 Sept. 2016, pp. 1–9.

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/SBEStatementonLGBTQYouth_534576_7.pdf

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Isabella Gentilozzi. All rights reserved.

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