The Albemarle County School Board heard comments from the public regarding its proposed “Policy on the Treatment of Transgender and Gender-Expansive Students” at its July 8 meeting. The policy is intended to “help schools ensure the educational and social integration of transgender and gender-expansive students and to keep their learning environments safe and free from discrimination and harassment.” The term “gender-expansive” encompasses all forms of gender expression or identity that vary from those which “society generally associates with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.”
The school division is following a 2020 Virginia law requiring schools to enact a policy protecting these students prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, and state education officials point to data showing that many gender-expansive students report that they feel unsafe and experience verbal and physical harassment or assault in school. Albemarle’s ten-page policy covers how school officials should handle a variety of situations, including the use of a student’s preferred name and pronoun, communication with parents about a student’s transition, and accommodations for school activities such as sports participation and locker room and bathroom access.
Dozens of people signed up to speak at the online School Board meeting, though the total number allowed to comment was capped at 40 ahead of time by a recent change in board policy. By the end of the comment period, 32 parents and students had appeared in the meeting, with 12 in support of the new policy, 11 against, and the remainder speaking about other topics.
“I fully support the transgender policy,” said parent Ryan Looney. “We have a moral imperative to protect these kids. Transgender kids aren’t something theoretical, they are our living, breathing friends and neighbors and they deserve to be given the promise of a safe, respectful education. This policy threatens no one and benefits many.”
The board’s policy requires that schools operate according to the gender identity that is “consistently asserted at school” by a student. This means using the student’s preferred name and pronoun in person and in all student records that are not “permanent pupil records” (such as transcripts, which must be maintained in the student’s legal name and gender). The school must also protect the confidentiality of a student’s gender status, including in school medical records.
One sticking point among parents opposed to the policy is the language surrounding parental notification when a (minor) student has informed the school about their gender transition. Under the policy, parents would be included in developing their child’s transition support plan at school only “if the family is supportive of the student” (as reported by the student). The policy states that “if the student does not want the school to contact the student’s parents, the school shall honor that request for privacy.”
The document’s language under this “privacy and confidentiality” section includes a requirement that “if school administrators or teachers suspect or become aware that a student is being harmed, abused, or at risk of harm or abuse at home, they should report these concerns to Child Protective Services immediately. Several speakers advocated for parents’ rights in these situations.
“I, too, feel that we need a policy that recognizes the dignity of all students,” said Meg Bryce, parent of four children in the western district. “However, let us be clear—these are our children, they are minors. If you intentionally keep something from me about my child, I don’t think that’s in the name of privacy, I think that’s secrecy. Please consider the precedent that would be set here. Are you comfortable with any school administrator or teacher being able to keep things from you about your child? We need a policy that protects students but that also respects the rights of parents.”
Other parents such as Stacy Williams said that it was “imperative that this [policy] is pushed forward,” given the heightened transgender suicide risk. “It’s also imperative that students feel that the place they’re in for 40 hours per week is a safe space,” she said. “If they are living in a home that does not support them, they can have people they can discuss it with in school. Obviously, those people are not making medical decisions or choices for them, and are not going to be pushing any sort of agenda forward.”
Speaker Margaret Gokturk recommended a revision to the draft policy that takes into account rules set by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). “FERPA defines and protects a student’s gender-expansive status as part of a student educational record,” she said, “and it mandates that parents have a right to access that record. This policy seeks to revoke parental rights in situations where Albemarle county school officials conclude that parents will not be supportive of a student’s transition. But whether parents will or will not be receptive to information in a student’s record does not absolve county schools of these requirements.”
Sports participation and locker room access
The new policy also requires that “students must be permitted to participate in physical education and intramural sports in accordance with the student’s gender identity that is consistently asserted at school.” Toward this end, the policy states that “gender-expansive students shall be provided access to facilities (restrooms, locker rooms, or changing rooms) consistent with their gender identity consistently asserted at school,” and that “a student whose gender identity is fluid should work with their school to facilitate restroom and locker room access that affirms their identity.” These rules also apply to other school activities such as overnight field trips. Several parents questioned how this would work in practice.
“The primary issues for myself and my children are the rules stating that students may use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they consistently assert at school, even if it changes from day to day,” said parent Iyana Carter. “What makes ‘consistency?’ How are the feelings of males being forced to expose themselves in front of persons with female body parts, and girls being forced to undress in front of persons with male body parts, being addressed? Where are those guidelines? I don’t see them anywhere in the policy. We do not agree to sign over our rights as parents the moment our kids enter school grounds.”
Proponents of the transgender policy focused on its broad strokes. Seth Oldham, father of a non-binary rising 12th grader and a transgender rising 10th grader, said he was “encouraged by fact that policy makers are coming up with ways to make my children’s experience a safe and comfortable one. As they work through the challenges of adolescence, having a safe place at school can make a huge difference in whether or not they rise to those challenges. This really will make a big difference in the lives of real people.”
A common theme among parents opposed to the transgender policy and other recent school division initiatives is their frustration with the School Board’s lack of transparency and willingness to consider other points of view. Chad Ciesil, parent of a rising fourth and sixth grader in the western district, said he has lost confidence in school division leadership and the School Board’s actions and inactions over the past year, and will be pulling his children out of the system this fall.
“I’m heartbroken for any child that feels unsafe or unwelcome anywhere in our community, but the School Board seems unwilling to find common ground with the large percentage of county residents that share common goals but see big problems with the actual policy and curriculum recommendations,” said Ciesil. Given their shared objectives, he said, “it must be possible for [all sides] to freely express opinions without threats, personal attacks, or fear of losing their job.”
The division responds
The school division held an online information session on the transgender policy on July 28, where community members could view the presentation but could only comment via email to the School Board. The session was led by the division’s equity specialist Lars Holmstrom and School Board attorney Ross Holden. The pair reviewed the policy’s legal basis and its key provisions, clarifying points of “misconception” while not apparently changing any of the policy’s language from the original draft.
For instance, regarding parental notification when a (minor) student tells school officials about a gender transition, Holmstrom said that “ACPS does not support educators to actively hide information from families that they have a right to know according to board policy. We will always seek to balance parental rights with student safety.” Yet he went on to say that the school will look to develop a student’s transition plan “in such a way that the family is included as fully and as soon as this is deemed reasonable to do so through conversations with the student,” which still seems to leave the ultimate notification decision up to the student.
Holmstrom also discussed the question of whether the policy “allows boys to use girls’ restrooms.” He framed the answer by making a distinction between a gender-expansive student simply using the bathroom and a boy entering a girls’ bathroom with an intent other than simply using the bathroom, explaining that student transition plans and their communication to school employees will alleviate these situations. He noted that some ACPS schools have had gender-neutral bathrooms for multiple years without any problems, but he did not refute the original parent concern that biological boys will be allowed to use girls’ restrooms.
With respect to sports participation, Holden reiterated that “students shall be allowed to participate in physical education and intramural sports in a manner consistent with the student’s gender identity,” and said that all other inter-school athletic participation is governed by the Virginia High School League (VHSL) or similar organizations. The VHSL’s transgender policy as adopted in 2016 says that transgender students may participate in athletics programs consistent with their gender identity as long as they present “documentation of consistent gender expression” from school and health officials.
The board is scheduled to vote on the policy on August 12, following the public comment segment of the meeting.
Update on the school division’s middle school Courageous Conversations About Race program
ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita spoke to the Crozet Gazette on July 26 and said that the division staff and teachers working on revisions to the CCAR lessons this summer have decided to expand the lessons into a full curriculum, which would thus require the approval of the School Board before adoption. The working group, which includes no parent representatives, plans to present the curriculum to the board this fall with the intent to begin teaching it at all county middle schools in the spring of 2022.