RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginia’s education department is still going over the deluge of public comments – more than 71,000 in 30 days – on Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed changes to how school districts treat transgender and nonbinary students.  

Youngkin’s administration quietly unveiled its draft model policies to replace the state’s policies for transgender and nonbinary students in public schools last September, starting a 30-day public comment period that lasted until late October 2022.

The Department of Education (VDOE) delayed finalizing the policy until at least Nov. 26, 2022, as at least one of the 71,297 comments submitted argued Youngkin’s proposal goes against state law or regulation, which requires a 30-day delay under Virginia law.

But more than five months later, the department is still looking over the comments, and there is no timeline for when a new policy will be finalized.

“VDOE is still analyzing public comment and the state superintendent has not finalized the model policies,” Charles Pyle, a state Department of Education spokesperson, wrote in an email to 8News on Wednesday.

The state’s Department of Education has undergone a major change since the 30-day delay. Lisa Coons took over as the superintendent of public instruction on April 17, replacing Jillian Balow as Virginia’s top education official.

Pyle did not respond to a request for an interview with Coons, who will have the final say on the proposed policy, or to questions about whether the department has been using any particular program or system to analyze the comments.

Even though the proposed policy has not been finalized and revisions can be made, ACLU of Virginia Policy and Legislative Counsel Breanna Diaz said its impact has already been felt by sending a message to transgender youth that “challenges their existence.”

“This is an intentional coordinated attack on the most marginalized members of our community,” Diaz told 8News in an interview.

The policy — the “2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools” — states that school personnel will refer to students using pronouns “appropriate to the sex” on their official record and changes to those records can only come after a legal document is provided to the school division.

Youngkin’s policies would require parents to be “fully informed” on school matters they consider important and says school staff can use pronouns that conform to a student’s gender identity if an eligible student — 18 years old or over or someone under 18 who is emancipated — or a guardian has submitted a notice to the division.

The guidelines would require students to use school bathrooms that correspond with their “biological sex,” “except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires,” citing the Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board case where a federal appeals court found the board violated the rights of a transgender student by banning him from using the boy’s bathroom.

The policy would also let school divisions separate sports teams based on students’ “biological sex.” Under the policy, school personnel are not required to address or refer to a student “in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

Diaz said the organization has heard from more transgender youth and their loved ones about their concerns since it was introduced, adding that the proposal has led to an increase in their emotional and mental stress.

She told 8News that educators shared their concerns when the Department of Education was taking public feedback, including school counselors who said the policy would make their jobs “impossible.”  

An earlier review of the comments by 8News, when the count was at close to 28,000, found most opposed the proposed policy and some in support.

Diaz said Youngkin’s proposed policy is part of a national trend of anti-transgender bills and policies pushed by Republicans. Unlike other states, Diaz noted that Virginia was able to block 14 such bills from passing this year.  

“This administration is trying to manipulate and misinterpret the law mandating the creation of good policies that affirm transgender youth and create inclusive school environments to push a personal political agenda to score points,” Diaz said. “And it is sickening to see an elected official like our governor choose to target and harm trans youth for his personal political agenda.”

Under a 2020 state law passed under Democratic control, school boards in Virginia were required to adopt rules “that are consistent with but may be more comprehensive than” the current model guidance from VDOE. Despite the law, data showed few school districts adopted the model policies and a patchwork of policies.

Diaz anticipates a similar reaction when a new policy is final, pointing to districts like Richmond City Public Schools that have adopted resolutions rejecting Youngkin’s proposal. But she added that questions remain over whether the Youngkin administration will “go after” these divisions.

“The 2022 model policies serve as useful guidance to the commonwealth’s 132 school divisions about the privacy, dignity and respect of the 1.3 million students in public education from kindergarten to twelfth grade,” Youngkin spokesman Rob Damschen said in a statement. “These policies express up front that ‘all students have the right to attend school in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, or bullying.’”

Damschen also encouraged those interested in the policy to review the proposed guidance, adding that the policy states that “every effort should be made to ensure that a transgender student wishing to change his or her means of address is treated with respect, compassion and dignity in the classroom and school environment.”

Diaz said the ACLU of Virginia is still waiting on the final version of the policy and “will be fighting every step of the way with trans youth.”