Fairfax Co. school district passes proposals to modify sex ed, dress codes

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — The Fairfax County School Board passed a proposal to change the school district’s dress code to gender-neutral language and adopt a more inclusive sex education curriculum.

Fairfax County School Board members heard the proposals Thursday. A special panel appointed by the board and made up of teachers and administrators designed the proposed sex education curriculum.

The change that drew the most scrutiny was the proposal to change the term “biological sex” to “sex assigned at birth.” It spawned hours of debate and testimony for and against the proposal that drew upon religion, science and emotion from those on both sides of the argument.

Supporters like Rev. Deborah Heffner, a Unitarian minister in Reston, say it’s more inclusive of LGBTQ and transgender students.

“Sex assigned at birth is not a made-up phrase by any political organization, it is not a part of some agenda, and it is certainly not designed to distort science or lead young people away from it,” said David Aponte, who chairs an LGBTQ advisory group in Northern Virginia.

Parents of transgender kids expressed their support for the change too, with one set of parents saying their daughter wasn’t transgender “because she just wants to be a girl … or because she learned about it in the (Family Life Education program).”

Critics say it would promote transgender issues and contraceptives instead of abstinence.

“Biological sex is the medically and biologically accurate term to use when referring to a person’s sex, which includes chromosomes, hormones and internal and external reproductive organs. A person’s sex is not something that is assigned at birth or otherwise. It is established at conception,” argued Hope Wojciak. “This is what students are taught in biology classes and should remain consistent throughout the curriculum.”

Many critics sent emails to the board asking members to reject the changes as phrases such as “sex assigned at birth” are ideological.

“These recommendations imprison students in half-truths and lies. Biological sex is not a mistake, it’s not a stigma, it’s not a choice,” argued Laura Bryant-Hanford, who said the proposal was “like saying some kids are colorblind so we’re going to teach kids that color does not exist.”

Ahead of the vote, board member Thomas Wilson lamented that the advisory committee that proposed the changes being adopted was composed of “numerous committee members who are openly hostile to people of faith.”

Wilson was one of two board members to step away from the table when it came time to vote.

Changes to the dress code

Also in the proposal was a change to strike out a significant chunk of language from the current dress code that board members worried led to too many instances of body shaming of female students.

Conceding that the wording may not be as precise as it should be, the board overwhelmingly voted to strike wording that banned outfits with “low cut necklines that show cleavage” and outfits deemed “otherwise sexually provocative.” However, wording was retained banning outfits that “expose an excessive amount of bare skin.”

Board member Ryan McElveen said most of the students’ concerns are about the dress code, “not student stress, not mental health, not over-testing, not school food.” He noted that most of the unease comes from female students and he has heard of incidents of “body shaming” for more than a decade.

Elizabeth Schultz, who represents the Springfield district, worried the changes will only add to the confusion.

“The nebulous nature of ‘You can’t show too much skin … ’ Well, what is too much?” asked Schultz.

McElveen shared stories that documented students who were embarrassed by school administrators and staff for their attire.

Schultz argued that those instances “(point) to a professional development piece that has to do with how our administrators are trained to talk and work with kids.”

The new policy also mandates that students be approached for discussions about their clothing in private and in a way that “maintain[s] the dignity of the student.”

“The most critical part of changing our dress code will be the training that comes with it,” said McElveen.

The proposal passed 10-0-1, with one away from the table. Schultz abstained on the motion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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