Northern Va. school systems still reviewing new policies on transgender students

School systems in Northern Virginia say they’re reviewing proposed state policies that would change the rights of LGBTQ students in schools.

Proposed Virginia Department of Education policies released Friday would require students to use programs and facilities that “match the sex they were assigned at birth” and would require parents to consent to their children changing their names and genders at school. The policy would go into effect after a 30-day public comment period that is scheduled to begin on Sept. 26.

Local school boards are required to adopt policies “consistent with” the Department of Education’s guidelines but “may be more comprehensive,” according to the document titled “2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools.”

In a letter to the school community Sunday, Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid said the state’s largest school system is dedicated “to providing a caring climate and culture where each and every student, staff member, and family is welcomed, respected, valued, and supported, as they experience a deep sense of belonging.”

The county, Reid said, plans to share a more detailed response soon.

Arlington Superintendent Francisco Duran said the county’s policies regarding equal opportunities, nondiscrimination and transgender students in schools remain in effect.

Since the policies were released Friday, some students, parents and educators have spoken out about the importance of protecting all students in Virginia schools. But proponents of the changes say it’s the latest example of Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivering on a campaign promise. Education was a central focus of Youngkin’s campaign.

Laura Stokes, the parent of a transgender child who attends school in Fairfax County, urged Youngkin to speak to communities in Northern Virginia, because, “I really don’t think what they’re proposing is in step with what parents actually want.”

“There’s a lot of fear among parents of transgender kids in the state,” Stokes said. “We’re all worried about whether our kids are going to be traumatized at school, whether they’re going to be bullied, if this is going to empower bullying at school and make those people feel like they can just say or do whatever to these kids and make them feel unsafe.”

Schools, under the proposed policies, can’t require staff members to refer to transgender students by their names or genders if it goes against a staff member’s free speech. The policies also say students’ use of bathrooms or locker rooms should be based on biological sex, with modifications offered only to the extent required under federal law.

The updated guidelines contrast with those issued by former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. The policies implemented under the Northam administration allowed students to use names and gender pronouns of their choice without “any substantiating evidence” and said students could use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Schools were told to consider talking about a students’ gender identity with parents on a case-by-case basis.

Ian Prior, executive director of advocacy group Fight For Schools, said the new policies are a “step in the right direction.”

“It’s refreshing to see somebody campaign on something and then actually fulfill those campaign promises once in office,” Prior said.

Del. Danica Roem, a Democrat representing Prince William County, said the policies violate the Virginia Human Rights Act, which protects against discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public settings, including schools.

Craig Konnoth, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Law School, told WTOP’s Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard he expects to “see challenges come about fairly soon — there may be challenges that attempt to prevent the rules from going into effect in the first place.”

Konnoth said the guidelines “are vulnerable to challenge in both state grounds and federal grounds.”

Prince William County School Board Chairman Babur Lateef told WTOP they county is also reviewing the policies. A spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools said the county doesn’t have a comment on the matter.

In a statement, the Fairfax Education Association, which represents about 4,000 teachers, called the policies “dangerous.”

“This is really about imposing ones beliefs onto other people,” the group said. “Deeply held beliefs should not lead to hurting children. Most teachers will not follow these directives because they did not go into the field of education to hurt students. The guidelines Youngkin and his team plan to implement will be detrimental to the mental health of kids. Schools are supposed to be a safe space.”

WTOP’s Abigail Constantino and Neal Augenstein and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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