RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — How transgender and nonbinary students are treated in Virginia’s public schools will change this fall.
During the 2020 session, the General Assembly passed a law that would create a new, statewide set of guidelines, or “model policy” for school districts. Districts are now tasked with adopting the new model policy by the start of the 2021-2022 school year, but some Virginia school boards are pushing back against the changes.
So far, a handful of school boards, predominantly in western Virginia, have voted against adopting the new policy. These are the districts so far, according to Equality Virginia:
- Augusta County
- Bedford County
- Carroll County
- Pittsylvania County
- Russell County
- Warren County
At last week’s school board meeting, Chesterfield County adopted the new statewide guidance after pleas from students and parents on both sides of the issue.
VDOE’s policy allows the use of name and gender pronouns students identify with, and allows students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The guidelines also say schools should let students participate in gender-specific programs or activities — such as physical education, overnight field trips and intramural sports — that correspond with their gender identities.
“School divisions should accept a student’s assertion of their gender identity without requiring any particular substantiating evidence, including diagnosis, treatment, or legal documents,” the model policy states.
“I’m simply asking that kids be protected and have a safe place to go to school,” said Mike Karabinos, a parent of two Chesterfield students.
“I beg of you that we accept transgender and nonbinary students as the law allows,” another parent said.
“While you were giving transgenders all of these wonderful rights, you are simultaneously taking them away from us,” said Monet Smith, a 13-year-old student at Tomahawk Creek Middle School. “I should have the right to use a restroom or change in the locker room without a boy walking in.”
Some parents speaking out against the new policies said forcing teachers to use gender pronouns that don’t reflect a students’ birth gender infringes on the teacher’s religious beliefs and freedom of speech.
The vote was not unanimous. School Board Vice Chair Ann Coker abstained from her vote while saying she was not fully comfortable with some aspects of the model policy.
Coker asked staff whether increased privacy for all students in locker rooms and bathrooms is being considered. One staff member said his team was in the process of looking into some of the possible options.
On Tuesday, CCPS spokesperson Shawn Smith said a final determination has not been made. Smith reiterated that the code specifies a minimum 18-inch clearance is required between the top of partitions and the ceiling in rooms with sprinklers.
However, according to Chesterfield county’s new policy, “upon request, single-user, gender-inclusive facilities or other reasonable alternatives shall be made available to any student who seeks privacy.”
“Any options offered shall be nonstigmatizing and shall not result in lost instructional time,” the policy states.
The new model policy also doubles down on existing anti-discrimination procedures in schools.
“Any incident or complaint of discrimination, harassment, or bullying shall be given prompt attention, including investigating the incident and taking appropriate corrective action, by the school administrator,” it says.
Also, according to the policy, if a student doesn’t want to share their gender identity with their parents, school staff should respect that and work with students to help them share the information when they are ready to do so.
“There are no regulations requiring school staff to notify a parent or guardian of a student’s request to affirm their gender identity,” the policy states.
On Tuesday, Equality Virginia and the ACLU of Virginia called on remaining districts to adopt the model policy.
“School boards must pass the guidelines,” said Equality VA’s Executive Director, Vee Lamneck, in a virtual news conference.
Studies show transgender students face high rates of discrimination, bullying and harassment. Studies also show that transgender and nonbinary students are much more likely to attempt suicide than cisgender students.
“By not complying with the law, they are endangering transgender students,” Lamneck said.
Lamneck said the districts that have already voted not to adopt the new policy should change their minds and revote.
So what happens when districts don’t comply?
“Non-compliance will be very costly for school boards if they are sued for discriminating against transgender students,” said Eden Heilman, an attorney with the ACLU of Virginia.
On Tuesday, VDOE superintendent of instruction James Lane told 8News the state will not penalize districts that don’t adopt the policy.
“But they face pressure of litigation from families of students who identify as transgender,” Lane said.
Two faith-based lawsuits recently tried to reject the law but failed in court. A judge in Lynchburg sided with the new guidance.
Henrico’s school board will be voting on the policy next week.