Prince William schools reject transgender policies from state, will not change regulations

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Thousands of students across Prince William County, including Colgan High School students pictured here, walked out of class on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, to protest Virginia Department of Education draft guidelines related to trans students. (Courtesy Robin Keller/InsideNova)

Prince William County Schools are rejecting the Virginia Department of Education’s new model policies on transgender students, saying its current policies are aligned with the Virginia Values Act’s prohibition on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, which mandated that students have access to school facilities corresponding with their gender identity.

With Thursday’s announcement, Prince William County Schools joined several other Northern Virginia school divisions in its rejection of the updated VDOE policies. School systems in Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington have said they won’t be updating their division-level policies to conform with VDOE’s guidance.

Officials with Loudoun County Public Schools say the changes are still under review.

“PWCS celebrates our diversity as a strength and welcomes all students. PWCS is also committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment and serving as trusted partners in education with our students, families, and community,” the school division said in a statement Thursday. “PWCS’ current policies are consistent with federal and state anti-discrimination laws. PWCS policies already prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity consistent with Virginia law … That is the law in Virginia, which VDOE’s Model Guidelines acknowledge.”

The new VDOE policies include several controversial provisions and sparked region-wide protests and school walkouts when an earlier draft was released last fall.

In the biggest departures from the VDOE’s 2021 model policy guidance, issued under former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, the new policies require school staff to refer to students only using gender pronouns and names corresponding to their official record unless a student’s parent makes a request in writing to the school. They also mandate that athletics participation be based on biological sex and require students to use bathrooms corresponding to their birth sex “except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

“The VDOE updated model policies reaffirm my administration’s continued commitment to ensure that every parent is involved in conversations regarding their child’s education, upbringing and care,” Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in a statement following the release of the updated policies in July.

But under Prince William County Public Schools Regulation 738-5, which the school system says it will not be changing for the upcoming 2023-24 school year, school staff is required to “accept a student’s or the student’s parent’s or guardian’s assertion of the student’s transgender or nonconforming status” and “allow the student to use a name and gender pronoun that reflect their gender identity.” In order to make such a request, a student does not have to present “evidence” or make a change to their school record.

In addition, the school system’s prevailing policy says that the “intentional or persistent refusal by a staff member to respect a student’s gender identity … is a violation of this regulation and is grounds for disciplinary action.” Finally, the division regulation requires that students have access to facilities, including restrooms and locker rooms, that correspond to their gender identity.

“We continue to work with our families on a case-by-case basis. And that has served the school division and the families well,” Prince William School Board Chair Babur Lateef told InsideNoVa.

On their own, VDOE model policies do not change school-level policies and regulations, but local school systems are required under state law to adopt policies consistent with the state education department’s. Many school boards around the state were on break when the final policies were released in July and are now taking the model policies up with the new school year beginning. On Tuesday, Spotsylvania County Public Schools adopted new policies that conform with the VDOE’s.

But with Fairfax and Prince William alone, the state’s two largest school divisions – together serving over 270,000 students – have now said they won’t be changing their policies to align with the state’s, potentially setting up a second court fight between the Youngkin administration and the non-conforming school divisions after a similar group of Northern Virginia school systems rejected Youngkin’s executive order on mask policies early last year.

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday prior to the Prince William announcement, Youngkin said officials in Fairfax needed to go back and revisit their decision because “there really isn’t a choice.”

“I’m disappointed that they have clearly really violated the law and what … the General Assembly said is that I will offer model policies and then local school boards will adopt policies consistent with those. They need to adopt policies consistent with those,” he said. “This is about the relationship between parents at the head of the table, trusted teachers and counselors, and a child. And that’s why I think this is so important for all the school districts to do what the General Assembly asks, which is adopt policies consistent with the model policies.”

Lateef said his division is simply doing what some others did when Northam’s administration released their model policies in 2021, which allowed school divisions to use different pronouns than those on their official school record without always consulting parents, particularly when doing so might jeopardize a student’s health and safety at home.

“Last time around, when Gov. Northam offered them, not all districts adopted them. And now that Gov. Youngkin’s making recommendations, not all districts will follow them,” Lateef said. “And when it comes to the law, Prince William firmly believes that we’re following all state and federal laws.”

The Virginia High School League, which governs public school sports, has also said that it doesn’t plan to update its policy, which allows some transgender students to participate in sports on teams for different genders than their birth sex.

In Prince William, the one Republican-backed School Board member, Jen Wall of the Gainesville District, said she’s pushed for the board to at least discuss and publicly vote on the new model policies. So far, though, no other members have backed her. To get on the board’s meeting agenda, an item needs support from three members.

“I think parents are responsible, I think parents need to be involved … I’m interested in putting this on the agenda. It doesn’t mean we have to adopt it but with a directive like that coming from the top, from the governor, from VDOE, I think we should at least discuss it,” Wall, who said she supports the new model policies, told InsideNoVa. “I understand these are difficult issues. It’s where politics runs into policy, and these are difficult issues — but I think they’re important issues.”

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