The Great Schools Initiative is pushing a familiar rhetoric against Michigan’s public schools. This time, they’re looking to bring lawsuits.
MICHIGAN—The Michigan Board of Education issued a resolution Tuesday, advising school districts to reject a scheme being pushed by right-wing activists targeting Michigan’s public schools.
The resolution, which comes on the heels of a similar state Department of Education memo, recommends school districts “reject any third-party opt-out forms as invalid, irrelevant, and inconsequential.” It’s a reaction to a recently formed nonprofit organization that’s trying to insulate Michigan’s students from any reference to the LGBTQ community, its history, or icons signifying safe spaces for LGBTQ people.
The group, called the “Great Schools Initiative” (GSI), is providing “opt-out” forms to Michigan parents largely via social media parenting groups. According to state law, Michigan parents can legally opt their child out of sex education programming using a district process, but the founders of GSI want to expand parents’ ability to opt their children out of anything related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and broader sexuality at any time of the school year.
The group’s founders have stated their long-term goal is to sue schools into submitting to the terms of their form.
“The object is to push,” said Nathan Pawl, one of GSI’s co-founders, in a training video.
Pawl, a conservative activist from Detroit, and two other Michiganders—Monica Yatooma, a failed Oakland County Commissioner candidate, and Matthew Nelson, a Walled Lake parent—founded GSI with the aid of the well-funded Chicago-based law firm the Thomas More Society, which provides pro bono services to right-wing causes.
Officials at GSI didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
A War of Words
According to a 1976 Michigan law, parents can opt their kids out of sex ed classes without academic penalty, using a form created by and returned to school districts.
GSI interpreted this law—inaccurately, according to the state—to suggest that parents can opt their children out of any lessons that include potentially sensitive topics. Modeled on its broad interpretation, the group drafted its own sex-ed form containing a number of alleged offenses under their umbrella concept of “rogue sex ed.”
GSI details four pages of what it considers “rogue sex ed,” including:
- “Teaching, discussion, or lessons where pronouns are defined different than biology, or using his/her alternate pronouns as a meaning of redefining gender apart from biology”
- “Use of pronouns for my student that does not match the student’s biological sex as listed in the enrollment documents”
- Teachers, staff, or administrators, displaying or distributing sexuality/gender paraphernalia like LGBTQ+ flags, trans flags, or gay pride stickers”
- “School wide activities that teach, discuss, or promote concepts about gender or sexual identities, gender or sexual expression, or other gender concepts such as LGBTQ+ Pride Week or Transexual Week”
On Feb. 2, the Michigan Department of Education issued a memo advising schools that parents are not allowed to simply opt their children out of education outside the coordinated sex education curriculum.
“The provision to allow a parent or legal guardian to request that their child be excused from classes specified in the statute referenced above applies only to sex education classes as defined in those sections,” states the memo. “Policies and procedures for excusing a student from participating in courses and content areas other than the sex education classes within a health education program, such as an English or Social Studies course, are not provided for in these sections of state law, and would be determined at the local district level…”
Still, GSI isn’t deterred. Four days after the DoE’s memo came out, the group sent a mass email celebrating the official launch of a month-long push to flood schools with their forms.
“Parent’s [sic] need to know what is going on in the schools!” the GSA email read. “And they need to know there is something they can do about it!”
What GSI is demanding might be in violation of existing state and federal laws, according to Jay Kaplan, an LGBTQ+ Rights project staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU.
The Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, the state’s cornerstone anti-discrimination law, says people in Michigan have the right to “full and equal utilization of… educational facilities.”
Kaplan also said GSI could run afoul of federal First Amendment and Title IX rights.
“The law is very, very strong on that issue,” Kaplan said.
The ‘Gander found no instance of a school district accepting a GSI form, nor any proof that schools have changed curriculum to meet the demands of parents. But many educators and parents are worried about the ramifications of lawsuits waged against smaller school districts with few resources to fight them.
The People Behind the Movement
In September 2022, Pawl conjured up a dire situation in Michigan’s schools while giving a speech to the Lakes Area Tea Party, a conservative political club dedicated to “renewing the American spirit” in Oakland County.
Without evidence, Pawl claimed children as young as first grade were being exposed to “just straight-up pornography” as part of their sex education. In his pitch to raise money for his preferred local school board candidates, he painted a clear bogeyman: public schools and liberal teachers who want to indoctrinate their students.
These tactics are similar to the claims Republican candidates made during the 2022 midterms—without evidence.
“It’s unbelievable, what’s going on,” Pawl told the crowd.
Pawl said that’s why he, Yatooma, and Nelson founded GSI with the help of the Thomas More Society. The Chicago law firm is currently allegedly looking to open a new Michigan office, and previously supported Pawl when he fought against masking requirements in Oakland County schools, according to Yatooma.
“We have seen the same people go from one issue to another issue to another issue,” said Nicole Kessler, a Birmingham mom who’s active in the pushback against GSI, and who also opposed Pawl’s mask lawsuit. “We see that there’s ties to people in the political community.”
Pawl had already been planting the seeds for its movement in the run-up to the November election. Along with speaking to political groups about GSI, he campaigned for three Walled Lake school board candidates who all pitched an opt-out form similar to GSI’s—two of whom spoke alongside Pawl at his presentation to the Lakes Area Tea Party.
A right-wing PAC linked to Pawl and GSI, the Walled Lake Citizens for Parental Rights (WLCPR), bankrolled the candidates, providing more than half of their combined funds. All three won their elections.
“How can these newest board members look at anything objectively when the groups that back them have a very obvious agenda they’re trying to push here?” said Becky Spagnuolo, a Walled Lake parent who ran against the three candidates for school board.
According to Yatooma, GSI has also enlisted the legal help of David Kallman, who formerly worked with the Trump campaign and was recently hired as Ottawa County’s new attorney following an extremist takeover on the County Commission. Kallman is also the legal representation for school boards across the state, one of the newest being Allendale.
National parents groups also stepped up to promote GSI. Moms for Liberty, an ultra-conservative group tied to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had a local representative speak at a recent GSI meeting. The conservative Facebook group Let Them Be, which focuses on book-banning in Michigan high schools, has also been involved with promoting “Operation Opt-Out” in Michigan schools.
Since its inception, much of GSI’s strategy has been to seed and share its opt-out form in popular Michigan parenting Facebook groups—Walled Lake parent Kindsey Nelson, a reported member of WLCPR, has seeded these opt-out forms in various Facebook.
Thomas Morgan, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said to The ‘Gander that part of GSI’s strategy is to masquerade as a local, grassroots movement when in reality, it receives national support from much larger organizations.
“[National right-wing figures] form these little groups, make it look like it’s grassroots, feed people this information and try to cause chaos,” Morgan said. “It’s important to be aware of what they’re doing, while at the same time, not allowing them to dictate the terms of the conversation and to dictate the agenda.”
Recently, GSI flyers were distributed at a national faith organization meeting in Clinton Valley Township, where participants argued that Christianity should play a larger part in schools.
The Strategy: Bend Till They Break
Katie MacFarland, Moms For Liberty’s Oakland County chapter leader, was one of the early adopters to submit GSI’s-sponsored opt-out forms, according to a now-deleted forum post on the GSI website. She claimed that Larson Middle School in Troy accepted the form—even though district officials have stated that third-party forms aren’t accepted.
GSI training videos indicate the organization’s broader goal is to present schools with an ultimatum: accept the forms or face legal consequences.
Kaplan doesn’t think GSI’s lawsuits would have merit. But he said the chilling effect of this movement could pressure some schools to approve the opt-out forms to avoid litigation.
GSI also told parents in a training video that they should expect some of their “rogue sex ed” forms to be denied by school districts. On its website, GSI offers to send a demand letter on behalf of parents and lays out the appeal process through the courts—where the Thomas More Society would step in free of charge for the strongest cases.
“The demand letter is how far it’s gone, and we’ll sue them is how far we’re willing to take it,” Yatooma said at a live-streamed meeting from Clinton Valley Township on Jan. 30.
The ‘Gander reached out to seven schools that reportedly received GSI’s opt-out forms from parents—Rochester, Farmington, Huron Valley, Oxford, Troy, Walled Lake, and Birmingham.
As of now, the only school district to confirm that it’s received a form is the Rochester Community School District. Spokesperson Lori Grein said a few GSI-forms were received and denied—and that the district has its own opt-out process.
A spokesperson for Troy School District told The ‘Gander that none of its schools will accept outside opt-out forms for any reason.
As of Feb. 9, the Thrun Law Firm, which represents a majority of school districts in Michigan, was not aware of any legal action brought by GSI against a school district, attorney Cristina T. Patzelt told The ‘Gander in an email.
“[GSI] is trying to do an end-around to achieve what’s happened in Florida,” said Kaplan, the ACLU lawyer.
Kaplan is referring to a Florida law known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion of LGBTQ issues in secondary school. Research from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, has shown that these policies are harmful to LGBTQ students.
According to the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBTQ youth in Michigan contemplated committing suicide in 2022—15% attempted suicide. Those numbers hover far above the nationwide average, as in the US, 20% of LGBTQ young people contemplated suicide and 9% attempted.
Parents of LGBTQ students are worried that the continual scapegoating of LGBTQ students could make Michigan schools more inhospitable for their kids.
“It’s not an easy path if you identify as LGBTQIA,” said Peri Stone-Palmquist, the executive director of the Student Advocacy Center, which provides non-legal aid for students and parents from vulnerable populations. “It’s not an easy path. It’s hard. It can feel socially isolating. We know that suicide rate is much higher with this population. School challenges are much higher for this population. So that to me means we need to do everything we can to help them feel safe and loved and cherished and not othered.”
In Michigan, at least 61,000 students identify as LGBTQ. According to a 2019 report from the anti-discrimination advocacy group GLSEN, two-thirds of Michigan’s LGBTQ student population experienced discrimination from their school.
Stone-Palmquist has tried to shield her two children, a 13-year-old who is nonbinary and a 16-year-old son, from much of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. But the family sat down together and read about GSI, Stone-Palmquist said.
One of her kids got up from the table, frustrated. The other wondered why this wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment.
“I think there’s unintended consequences [of these forms] perhaps, or maybe they’re very much intended,” Stone-Palmquist said.
On Feb. 6, after getting backlash as the group received increased media attention, GSI issued a blog post in attempt to clarify that it did not seek to jeopardize the health and safety of LGBTQ students, saying the group is committed to “making safety and privacy of all students, both Straight and LGBTQ, paramount.”
Kaplan doesn’t believe GSI’s intentions match up with its claims.
“For all the progress that has been made on LGBTQ+ rights, this is definitely part of the pushback that we’re seeing,” Kaplan said. “And it’s very disheartening because of who is being harmed by this, and that is LGBTQ+ kids.”