Trump's Secretary of Education recently got a silent but pointed message about civil liberties from a student. On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos visited Grand Rapids Public Museum School and met with pupils at the Michigan institute. As it turned out, one of those students wore a transgender pride flag while meeting DeVos — a purposeful decision from the student who, according to MLive.com, wanted to deliver a message on protecting LGBTQ rights throughout American schools.
The student's name is Torin Hodgman, a self-described gender-queer pupil at the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, MLive.com reported. Hodgman, whose preferred nouns are they or them, said that they decided to wear a transgender pride flag around their neck like a cape. Their question for the education secretary was, "What is DeVos doing to ensure schools are safe learning environments for LGBTQ students and others who are questioning their gender identity?"
Although Hodgman was not able to ask DeVos their question in person, they hoped that the flag they donned around their neck delivered their stance on the issue of securing LGBTQ rights. "Public schools are a place for all children," Hodgman told MLive.com.
In 2017, DeVos elicited the criticism of many observers after the Department of Education rescinded protections first enacted under former president Barack Obama's administration. The Obama-era guidelines gave transgender students the right to use school bathrooms that matched their gender identity. Although activists condemned the move, DeVos said that states should be given the definitive decision-making power on the subject.
This won't be the first time that a student has made a political gesture during DeVos' visit. In the past, on separate occasions, students from University of Baltimore as well as Harvard have demonstrated against DeVos.
According to MLive.com, DeVos did not discuss anything related to transgender rights in American schools. In the video clip uploaded by the media website, DeVos could be seen amicably welcoming students, including Hodgman, but there was no mention of LGBTQ rights or students.
DeVos praised Grand Rapids Public Museum School's way of teaching and said that it was "doing things differently to meet students' needs." The education secretary told journalists, "This model is a place-based, very experiential, hands-on collaborative approach, and the students that I met were clearly energized by their learning environment."
Place-based education is a kind of teaching philosophy and practice that focuses on issues and subject matter that take place at a local level. For instance, at Grand Rapids Public Museum School, MLive.com reported that students are being taught about the condition of the Grand River, how to create podcasts (a great class for young and aspiring media students), and more. During DeVos's trip, the Education Secretary checked a Lake Sturgeon project and then gathered with the pupils and administrators.
At the meeting, DeVos said, "One of the most important things I can do is go and visit schools like this and talk about them and help other communities see and learn what's happening in other places."
In spite of her positive assessment of the Michigan school's innovative approach to education, DeVos has not addressed the complaints of her critics who worry that her policies could hurt transgender students. By rescinding the guidelines that shield transgender students from discrimination, DeVos appears to have cast doubt over the future and safety of transgender youths across America.
For students like Hodgman, this doesn't seem like a small matter. Perhaps their quiet gesture — a pink, blue, and white flag — may compel DeVos to push for more robust and nationwide protections.