RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Debate over proposed transgender student policies dominated three hours of public comment at the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting on Thursday.
The board has no formal role in approving the policies but that didn’t stop Virginians from speaking out. The meeting room was quickly filled to capacity and an overflow space was opened to accommodate spectators.
The new proposed standards were rolled out by Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration last month. They are intended to replace old policies finalized under former Democratic leadership.
The proposed changes would require parental permission for pronoun and name changes in school. Parents would also be given a chance to object to gender-related counseling. Additionally, teachers wouldn’t be required to refer to students in a manner that violates their constitutional rights.
Jennifer Evans, a teacher and parent of a non-binary child, said she is currently teaching a student whose parents don’t support their identity or pronouns.
“I have seen the unnecessary stress and burden that puts on a child,” Evans said. “Some kids are safer being their fully authentic selves at school.”
Oliver Lesher, a transgender student from Chesterfield, said he lost everything overnight after coming out to his family at the age of 19.
“It was just as bad as I thought it would be. My grandmother said that I was condemned to hell and my dad, my only parent and my best friend who supported me through all things, physically fought with me and told me to get out of his home,” Lesher said.
Nancy Kunkel said she lives in constant fear of losing her transgender daughter to suicide. She was one of several speakers who raised concerns that these policies would heighten the risk of self-harm among an already vulnerable population.
“If you enact these policies, children will die,” Guin Hartinger, a transgender person from Richmond, said.
While the majority of speakers on Thursday opposed the proposed standards, several people spoke out in support of the revisions.
“Previous 2021 model policies sanctioned the dividing of children against their parents and infringed on parent rights,” said Pro-Family Women President Susan Muskett.
Julie Perry, a teacher in Fairfax County who unsuccessfully ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates, said through tears that female students tell her they are afraid to use the girls’ bathroom.
“There are a lot of teachers that think like me and are tired of the left’s ideology and don’t want to teach it but they are afraid to speak out,” Perry said. “They are terrified.”
The revised policies say students will be required to use bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex, “except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.” Some legal experts say the proposal won’t change much because the document cites a court case that affirmed the rights of transgender students to use bathrooms that corresponds with their gender identity.
An online public comment period on the draft policies has already prompted more than 60,000 responses. Virginians can weigh in through Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
In an interview on Thursday, State Superintendent Jillian Balow said they are reaching out to other states and agencies for advice on reviewing a large amount of public comments.
“We’ll be using a mix of human reviewers and artificial intelligence,” Balow said. “We’ll make sure that voices are heard.”
Asked to respond to concerns raised during the meeting, Balow doubled down on the Youngkin administration’s parental rights platform.
“A lot of the comments today are about the protection of transgender students and all students and that’s exactly what these policies get at, making sure that all students, including transgenders, are protected from intolerance, discrimination and bullying,” Balow said. “There is no better time than now to support and embrace our students and a key factor in that has to be their parents.”
Balow said it’s too soon to say if she will push for any policy changes. She said state law gives her and the Virginia Department of Education the final say, without a vote from the State Board of Education.
The draft policy says all Virginia schools must adopt the standards but lawsuits could complicate that. Balow couldn’t say how long it will take after the public comment period closes to release the final version.