Statewide Transgender Policies Are Recommended By Law, But Few Virginia School Divisions Have Adopted Them

Two years after the General Assembly passed a law that required Virginia school districts to make policies for transgender and nonbinary students, few have chosen to use the model policies that the state made. By the 2021-22 school year, school boards were required by law to have policies for how to treat transgender students that were the same as or more comprehensive than the models made by the Virginia Department of Education.

Equality Virginia says that as of the beginning of September, however, only 10% of school boards had adopted the model policies. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group is keeping track of how districts are implementing the law. They say that 13 school divisions have fully adopted the VDOE model policies, while 90 have chosen to follow guidance from the Virginia School Boards Association, which says that existing policies meet the requirements of the law.

Still, other districts have completely turned down the new rules. “I’m a little upset that some school boards don’t want to follow the rules,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who worked on the bill together in 2020. The 2020 law, which Narissa Rahaman, the executive director of Equality Virginia, called “landmark legislation,” didn’t have a way to make it work, though.

Simon said that he hopes school boards in Virginia will agree with the policy, but he is thinking about changing the law in the future to include some rewards or punishments. An attempt during the last legislative session to remove the requirement for school divisions to adopt the policies failed in committee.

Model Policies

The model policies made by the Virginia Department of Education were meant to protect transgender and nonbinary students from discrimination and give them the best chance to do well in school. The 2020 law, which was signed by former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, said that policies should focus on eight key areas.

Since then, most conversations have been about how students are identified and how they can use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Glenn Youngkin, who is a Republican, has been more critical of the effort. He recently criticized Fairfax County for its policies on transgender students and said that parents should know about their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Youngkin said at a rally in Northern Virginia on August 31: “I can’t believe that bureaucrats and administrators can tell teachers to have these conversations and let these decisions be made without telling the parents.” “It can’t happen,” said Simon. Boysko said the model policies were made with “lots of public input” from teachers, administrators, students, and parents across the commonwealth.

The most recent National School Climate Survey done by GLSEN, which used to be called the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and helps LGBTQ+ students, found that most LGBTQ+ high school students felt unsafe at school in 2019, mostly because of their sexual orientation and how they showed their gender.

Many also said they didn’t have access to resources, like a curriculum that included LGBTQ+ people, and that they didn’t feel safe because their schools didn’t have policies that supported and included them. After the 2020 law was passed, groups like the Christian Action Network tried to stop these policies. In Lynchburg City, a judge threw out their case.

James Fairchild, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in court documents that Virginia’s model policies went beyond treating all students “compassionately and with great care.” He said the policies “venture into an unscientific and ideological anti-biology bias that presents a false reality land by embracing and imposing on everyone an unworkable framework and by accepting transgender activists’ fictional unsustainable social construct that denies biological reality.”

Different Approaches

Virginia school districts have taken different steps to meet the state requirement. Some, like Loudoun and Fairfax, have taken the policies as their own. Newport News turned down the state’s advice at first but later changed its mind. Some counties, like Augusta, Bedford, Pittsylvania, and Russell, have rejected the policies outright, and the school board in the city of Chesapeake has never put the policies up for a vote.

During the board’s vote last summer, Russell County School Board Chair Cynthia Compton said that she thinks the school division is following state law and is “trying to keep every child safe while they are at school.” However, the Warren County School Board did not approve any of the policies. Ralph Rinaldi, a member of the Warren School Board, said that it was important to set an example for other counties and find a solution that is “good for the students of Warren County first and everyone else second.

The chairs of the school boards in Chesapeake and Russell did not respond right away when asked for comments. The current chair of the Warren County School Board, Andrea Lo, was not in charge when the vote happened. The Hanover County School Board just passed a policy that says transgender students must send a written request to the school principal if they want to use a bathroom, locker room, or changing room that matches their gender identity.

The request must include signed statements from the student’s parent or guardian, signed statements that the student has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria or consistently expresses binary gender identity, and the student’s disciplinary or criminal records. Rahaman said that Hanover’s policy is “intrusive” and not needed.

He also said that it will make transgender and non-binary students even more outcasts and could hurt them. Many other divisions have said that their current policies are the same as the Virginia School Board Association’s response, which they say is in line with state law. In its five-page document, VSBA explains how it thinks its policies meet the requirements of the 2020 law, such as being in line with anti-discrimination laws and giving all students a safe, supportive learning environment that is free from discrimination and harassment.

So, schools that have already adopted the policies on the VSBA list have said they are already in compliance with the 2020 law and don’t need to do anything else. Lexington City Schools, for example, said last summer that “the law is clear that transgender students must be allowed to use the restrooms and locker rooms for the gender with which they consistently identify and assert.”

Any student in the school can ask to use a private bathroom. Lexington City Schools will follow the law, but Rahaman said that VSBA’s policies are not enough and don’t even mention the word “transgender.” She also said that VSBA’s policies don’t cover eight areas identified by the commonwealth, such as dress code, student identification, and facility usage.

She said that VDOE’s policies are a guide for making “affirming school environments,” while VSBA’s policy updates are just “an attempt to achieve legal compliance with state law.” Gina Patterson, the executive director of the Virginia School Board Association, did not respond to a request for comment.

Boysko said, “It’s been disappointing to see that some other school districts don’t seem to understand how important it is to treat students with respect and dignity and how important their privacy is.” Rahaman said that there are transgender and non-binary students all over Virginia and that they deserve school boards that will support and affirm their identities on the basis of equality.

“We want teachers to be able to focus on teaching, so these model policies and guidelines are there to help them better understand how to create affirming classrooms and learning environments for students, so they can focus on teaching things like math, science, and history,” she said.

Boards May Face Legal Consequences For Not Adopting Model Policies

The 2020 law didn’t give the Department of Education much power to punish school divisions that didn’t follow the model policies. In a memo to superintendents from last summer, James Lane, who used to be superintendent of public instruction, said that nondiscrimination policies alone might not be enough to meet the full requirements of this law.

“Local school boards must follow this directive, just like they must follow all other orders from the General Assembly,” Lane wrote. “This is required by state law.” “Local school boards that choose not to adopt policies are legally responsible for noncompliance.” A spokesperson from the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about school districts that did not adopt the model policies.

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