HANOVER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The Hanover County School Board held a special meeting Thursday night to gather public comment on proposed policy revisions regarding nondiscrimination and the school division’s treatment of its transgender students.

During public comment periods, School Board members listen to what community members say; they do not respond.

More than 50 local residents were registered to speak at the meeting, with even more in the audience and waiting outside once attendance was capped.

“It is a little bit painful to have to sit there and know that no matter how much you open up your heart and you tell your truth, nobody has to understand you,” Atlee High School senior Jay Engel said. “I wasn’t expecting a lot of people to be understanding. I was expecting to get up there and open up my heart and plead for humanity.”

As community members spoke before the School Board in support of the drafted transgender policies to be voted on Nov. 9, others shared their concerns about safety for cisgender students.

“My specific concern is not the students who are transgender, but those who will use this new policy as an excuse to be vindictive against a student who has upset them,” Kimberly Thurston said.

But parents of transgender students said that the safety concerns should be for transgender students, arguing that cisgender students do not face the same risks.

“When my daughter, who I’ll call Sally Smith, came out as trans in 2014, she was, from what I understand the first openly transgender student in Hanover schools,” Beth Cox said. “She was afraid for her safety in both the girls’ bathroom and the boys’ bathroom. Therefore, she never saw the bathroom stall where someone etched, ‘Sally Smith needs to die.'”

Set for an action item on its Nov. 9 agenda, the Hanover County School Board is considering changes to its nondiscrimination policy to include language about the treatment of transgender students. Such revisions are required for school divisions throughout the Commonwealth, after the General Assembly passed a law in 2020 that created a new, statewide set of guidelines for school districts on how their transgender and nonbinary students are treated. That legislation mandated school divisions throughout Virginia to have instituted changes to such policies by the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“I’m still not sure why we’re here. State law required Virginia’s school divisions to adopt the model policies before the start of this school year,” Cox said. “Experts and advocates and legislators already met and made these guidelines law. The time for discussion has past. Hanover County Public Schools is in violation of the law.”

In a July 30 memo to school divisions, the VDOE state superintendent stated that local school boards that elect not to adopt policies assume all legal responsibility for noncompliance. While no state funding is tied to this legislative mandate, noncompliance could still be costly for school boards in the commonwealth that fail to comply, due to civil litigation or other associated liabilities.

“If you are worried about being sued, there are a lot more of us than there are of them,” Becky Hendricks said. “You think about that.”

For every community member who spoke out against the adoption of the policy changes on the treatment of transgender students, arguing that they cater to a minority of the student body, other community members said adopting these policy changes would only be a small step in the right direction.

Correction: This article was updated to clarify a quote from Kimberly Thurston