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VDOE Delays Guidance for Transgender Protections to Review Public Comments

School locker room
New legislation mandates the Virginia Department of Education provide guidance on how to protect transgender and nonbinary students, but that guidance has been delayed following a deluge of public comment. (Photo: F-Jord)

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education to help local school districts better protect their transgender and nonbinary students was set to go into effect Thursday, but the department says that likely won’t happen until later this month.

The document is currently subject to public input and has received over 5,000 comments in the last month. VDOE says it will need to delay the document’s effective date until it has had a chance to review all the comments. The public comment period closes at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

The new guidance is required by legislation passed during last year’s General Assembly session. The new law also requires local school boards to adopt policies that align with the VDOE guidelines to protect gender nonconforming students from discrimination and harassment. 

“We know that the lack of clarity has left some schools without an effective policy to protect all students in our schools. The VDOE guidance, implementing my legislation, establishes a consistent statewide policy to set a standard protecting the rights for all students,” said the law’s patron, Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax), in an email.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of the advocacy group Equality Virginia and one of several advocates who provided input on the document, says the guidance is a significant step in the right direction. But they say it will still require the work of local stakeholders to elevate these state guidelines to actual policy. 

“Now, it's the responsibility of our local school boards to vote this into action to implement this at the local level,” Lamneck said.

Local school boards throughout Virginia are required by law to adopt policies to protect transgender students that align with the new VDOE guidelines by the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. 

The VDOE guidance encourages local school districts to adopt inclusive policies that “minimize social stigmatization” and “maximize opportunities for social integration.” It also places emphasis on school officials and staff using informed and comprehensive language: 

“While the terminology transgender is used throughout this document, it should be interpreted to include gender-expansive, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals who do not identify on the cisgender binary,” the document reads. 

The document also encourages school divisions to engage with students when crafting their own policies for protecting transgender students.

Studies show that LGBTQ students, especially those who identity as transgender, face high rates of discrimination, bullying and harassment. Three out of four trans students nationwide say they feel unsafe at school because they’re likely to experience verbal and physical harassment or physical assault.

In Virginia, more than half of LGBTQ students say they’ve been harassed at school for their gender or sexual identity, and 31% of transgender students say they regularly hear school staff make negative remarks about someone’s gender expression.

While most LGBTQ youth in Virginia say they’ve been victimized for their identity at school, the study says nearly two-thirds have never reported these incidents to school staff.

“Those statistics alone can be directly correlated to poor mental health outcomes,” Lamneck said. “It is the school's responsibility to ensure that students feel safe, are able to be themselves and are able to use their name and access the facilities that they need to.”

The same studies have also shown that transgender students who are victimized for their gender expression are three times more likely to miss school. Lamneck says policies such as the incoming VDOE guidance can make a big difference in a student’s academic achievement.

“That's why this guidance is so important. It will actually help contribute to students’ better grades, higher attendance and positive mental health outcomes,” they said. “It helps school administrators really understand how they can do what they're tasked to do, which is creating a learning environment where all students can succeed.”

Less than half of all states have laws that outright ban discrimination based on gender identity; Virginia is one of them. Four states have issued guidance to schools on how to specifically protect transgender youth. 

Federal guidance on this same issue was laid out under President Barack Obama in 2016, but was soon withdrawn by the Trump administration in the following year.