Policies for transgender students to be reviewed by school board

By Heather Michon

Almost two years after implementing a new set of state-mandated policies for transgender students, Fluvanna County Public Schools must do it all over again.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) implemented new model policies on July 19. 

Titled “Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect For All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools,” the document closely aligns with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “Parents Matter” philosophy. It asserts the need “to address topics such as the treatment of transgender students with necessary compassion and respect for all students,” while fully acknowledging “the rights of parents to exercise their fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to direct the care, upbringing, and education of their children.” 

With the publication of the new model policies, all 132 of Virginia’s school districts are required to revisit their current policies and bring them in line with the model. 

“You can go above and beyond, but you cannot go beneath the minimum requirement,” Superintendent Peter Gretz told the School Board at its  meeting on Wednesday night (Aug. 9). Fluvanna’s policies must be “consistent with, but may be more comprehensive than, the model policies.”  

Gretz said the major change from the 2021 policies is a shift from a student-initiated to a parent-initiated process for expressing gender identity.

Among the changes: 

Under the 2021 policies, transgender students could directly request that their school use their preferred name and pronouns both in the classroom and on school records. Under the 2023 policies, students need their parent’s written permission to make these changes. Even if a parent requests it, faculty and staff are not required to use those names or pronouns if they feel it violates their constitutional rights to do so.

Schools are also prohibited from concealing information about a student’s gender identity to a parent unless there is a risk of harm or suicide. Counselors will be required to inform the parents if a student comes to them seeking guidance for gender identity issues.

Reversing the 2021 guidance, the 2023 policies require students to participate in sex-specific sports or sex-specific activities based on their sex assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity.

And, revisiting the contentious issue of bathroom use, the 2023 policies assert that students “shall use the bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law requires.” Schools will also have to provide single-use facilities, and parents will have the option to have their children opt out of using the same bathroom as a transgender student.

Gretz pointed school board members to a 12-page briefing prepared by Sands Anderson, the district’s legal counsel, which details some of the ways the model policies may conflict with existing case law and cases now working their way through the system. How to navigate the legal minefield “is not clear, and the inconsistency in guidance exposes Virginia school boards developing policy on this topic to debate, criticism, and/or litigation from interested constituencies.” 

The brief also points out that, while districts are required under the state’s legal code to develop VDOE model policies, the courts have ruled that they are only “guidance documents” and there are currently no enforcement mechanisms or penalties for non-enforcement. 

Gretz told the board that the policies would almost certainly face a legal challenge at some point. 

His recommendations were to change district procedures, not the policy itself. “What does a principal do in a situation?” he said. “The policies don’t set those things out. So focus on the practices. I don’t think your policies need to change.” 

No action was taken at Wednesday’s meeting. Gretz will have to compile a detailed list of potential changes to procedures to present at a future meeting.

Board members had few comments during or after Gretz’s presentation, but a few residents gave public comments later in the meeting.

“Sometimes school is the one safe place [trans students] have away from their parents, and the only safe place they have to express themselves among their peers,” said Georgianna Joslin. “Not every child has a safe and happy home.”

“We are told, as parents, especially as the kids start getting to high school to allow them to advocate for themselves,” said another speaker. “But now you’re saying no, you need a note from your mom.’’

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