Schools’ Transgender Policy Guidance Changes Again

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Crozet parent Sarah Harris speaks to the Albemarle County School Board on behalf of transgender student rights. Photo: ACPS.

The Virginia Department of Education (DOE) under Governor Glenn Younkin issued new “model policies” in September to guide local school divisions on matters pertaining to students’ gender identities. The policies define a student’s gender for purposes of official school records as their “biological sex,” prohibit school staff from concealing student gender information from parents, and require that a student may be referred to by a name and pronouns other than those consistent with their official record only if a parent requests such accommodations in writing. 

Under the new guidance, transgender students will also be required to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their biological sex. These guidelines replace those issued in 2021 by former Governor Ralph Northam’s DOE, which compelled school staff to identify and allow students to use bathrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity, and did not require parental notification of a transitioning student.

Both sets of model policies were issued under the auspices of a 2020 Virginia law that broadly ordered school districts to adopt transgender student policies. The DOE’s intent was that all local school districts would adopt its suggested specific policy language, but the law contained almost no enforcement authority. Albemarle County is one of 13 of the state’s 133 school districts to have embraced the entirety of the DOE’s 2021 transgender guidance. Most other districts declared that they were already in compliance with the law by virtue of their existing non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Though the Albemarle School Board asserted in 2021 that it was required to adopt its transgender student policy “in accordance with Virginia statutory law,” the board’s response to the new proposed changes suggests that it may not view the 2022 policy guidance with similar urgency. An October 5 statement from the board said that its members “respectfully but vigorously disagree” with the new model policy, characterizing it as “dismissive of students who identify as transgender or gender-expansive.” 

The board expressed concern that the new policy “would override the authority of local elected officials to support the values of the local communities,” and that “nowhere are those values more powerfully lived than in our public schools.” 

In defense of its position that parents need not be notified if their child wishes to transition, the board said that “some [family] relationships are imperfect and even harmful. Our response must be to honor personal choice, not the imposition of outside opinions that decide for a child … from whom to seek healing.” The board equated its responsibility “to deliver care and support” to transgender students with its obligation “to recognize and end any abuse of a child, whether it occurs in the home or in a school.”

Albemarle county parents who agree with the terms of the 2022 policy are chiefly concerned with regaining the right to be involved with their kids’ decisions surrounding gender issues. “Children are too young and too easily influenced to be making that decision [to transition] on their own without their parents,” said Crozet parent John Alton, who also thinks there should be a greater emphasis on anti-bullying vigilance. “I have no problem with there being discussion of transgenderism in school. It should be taught hand in hand with the idea that you don’t bully those people, or anyone else.”

The board underlined the word “all” nine times in its statement, emphasizing that transgender policy should respect and value “all students.” Some parents question whether the safety and privacy of non-transgender children in spaces such as bathrooms and locker rooms has been taken into account, and feel there’s room for compromise. “My understanding of the [county’s policy] document was that schools need to provide facilities for any particular assignment,” said Alton, “so if you’re a boy who identifies as a girl, or a girl who identifies as a boy, there’s a separate bathroom for you.”

Crozet parent and transgender rights advocate Sarah Harris strongly opposes the new guidance. “Without hyperbole, the [new] policies put the lives of LGBTQ students at stake,” she said. “These policies would force transgender and non-binary students to be out to their parents. Unfortunately, fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and non-binary youth find their home to be gender-affirming. These kids report attempting suicide at more than double the rate of those who feel high family support.

“Despite their difficult home situations, some of these brave kids are able to live authentically at school thanks to teachers and staff who create safe and affirming environments with guidance from policies that protect transgender and gender-expansive students, such as the one adopted by ACPS,” Harris continued. “LGBTQ youth whose schools are affirming of their identity experience significantly lower rates of suicidal ideation and self-harm than kids who do not attend affirming schools.”

Alton said that school officials have no right to conceal student health information from parents, and should not be the arbiters of intra-family disputes. “What is the data here? You can’t impose an entire new regime of education and policy because of hypothetical cases [of family conflict],” he said. “In those cases where a child has an issue with their parents, the school should turn the situation over to some sort of social services and have it negotiated [externally] along with the police. That’s how it should be handled, not by someone with a school administration degree.”

Virginia State Delegate Elizabeth Guzmán said in October that she planned to introduce a bill that would expand the state’s definition of child abuse and neglect to include parents who do not affirm their child’s preferred gender identity. “There would be a police investigation before we make the decision that there’s going to be a CPS [Child Protective Services] charge,” said Guzmán in an Alexandria 7News interview. Under her proposed statute, parents could face felony or misdemeanor charges and could lose custody of their children. 

Harris pointed to the development and legal authority of the new policy as also problematic. “The proposed 2022 policies received no public input while being drafted, were not developed in accordance with evidence-based best practices, and will put youth at risk for harm and discrimination at school,” she said. 

“The policies are a blatant violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act and § 22.1-23.3 of the Code of Virginia, and disregard the ruling by the 4th Circuit Court in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board as well as a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which determined that civil rights law barring sex discrimination covers transgender people,” said Harris. “We must be mindful not to engage in the dangerous national practice of politicizing kids based on their identity and we must remember that safe and affirming schools save lives.”

Crozet parent and 13-year resident Jessica Ammons appreciates the county’s advocacy for all children. “The raised awareness surrounding transgender and gender expansive students is commendable, and I sincerely hope the needs of others can be acknowledged by everyone so that continued conversations can take place between families at home regarding ethics, humanity, courtesy and respect for individuality,” she said. However, she takes issue with schools not notifying parents of transitioning children under the 2021 policy.

“We should all want to build back the family unit, which is the backbone of our society and comes in many different shapes, colors and sizes,” said Ammons. “Abandoning the family unit and forfeiting parental/guardian rights will counter a movement back to a place where strength and human decency resonates from within the family. It seems like a greater understanding between transgender students and the families whose rights are being threatened could be accomplished more effectively through family council, private open discussions and professional guidance.”

Governor Youngkin has defended the new policy guidance as pro-parent. “Parents must have a role in their children’s lives and, as these important decisions are made, parents must be informed and included,” he said during a CNBC conference in September. “I would find it very hard to argue that a parent being engaged with a child’s life is inconsistent with that child’s safety. The word ‘bullying’ shows up in the draft guidelines 36 times to reassure families that we are doubling down on the fact that there can be no harassment and no discrimination. This is about keeping people safe, but also fully, fully involving parents in these most important decisions.”

Over 70,000 comments were collected by the DOE during the 30-day public input phase for the new policy that ended on October 26. A quick review of the comments on the state site reveals strong opinions on both sides of the issue, along with a large number of anonymous duplicated responses that will have to be sorted by state officials. The DOE announced a delay in implementation of the guidance for an additional 30 days while staff members organize the data.

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