Advocates and students say patchwork system undermines transgender students' protection
It’s been well over a month since the start of the K-12 school year. But most school districts in central Virginia have not adopted state-mandated model policies to protect transgender students.
Only Richmond Public Schools and Chesterfield County Public Schools have adopted policies fully aligned with model policies from the Virginia Department of Education, in August. But no other neighboring district has, and regional school officials say they believe they’ve done enough to be in compliance.
Mila Hall, school board clerk for New Kent County Public Schools, told VPM News that “the Virginia School Board Association has told us our policies are good as is,” and that legally, “all of our current policies cover us.”
Hall added, “if we ever did [intend to update these policies], it would be a very public and intensive process. It’s not something we would just do without telling anybody.”
Most other districts surrounding Richmond – including Goochland County Public Schools, Colonial Heights Public Schools, and Petersburg City Public Schools – have also adopted policy language suggested by the Virginia School Boards Association, which is different from VDOE’s model policy language. The updates include adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes under districts’ anti-discrimination policies.
Linda Hockaday, school board cleck for Powhatan County Public Schools, wrote to VPM that “the school board has enacted policies through the VSBA policy service on this topic.” The VSBA did not return VPM’s phone and email inquiries.
Alex Campbell, a junior at Powhatan High School, said more specific language is needed to protect transgender students. He described a recent incident at his school, in which students ripped down a banner displaying important dates in LGBTQ+ history during LGBTQ+ History Month, as an example of why stronger policies are necessary.
“They [Powhatan County Public Schools] felt like an additional anti-discrimination measure was not necessary. However, I am inclined to heavily disagree with them,” Campbell said. “I believe that discrimination in all forms should not be tolerated and it should be spelled out. And the more it is spelled out, and the clearer it is, and the more elaborate it is, frankly the better, because that also provides additional transparency about what students should know that they're not allowed to do, and what students in the LGBTQ community can expect at school.”
Vee Lamneck, executive director for Equality Virginia, said research shows that policies affirming the rights of transgender students have a positive impact on students’ lives and experiences in school.
“We see academic performance increase, we see attendance increase, we see overall well-being increase, because these kids then feel safer being themselves in school,” Lamneck said in an interview with VPM News.
Lamneck said districts that have decided not to adopt policies in line with VDOE are taking a big legal risk, citing what happened in Gavin Grimm’s case. A federal court found that Grimm was unfairly discriminated against when he was prohibited from using the restroom that aligned with his gender identity.
“If Gloucester County had had a policy in place to help the teachers and administrators understand how to create more equitable spaces, they could have avoided this very, very expensive lawsuit,” Lamneck said. “And Gavin could have gone to school in a safe and affirming space.”
Legislation approved last year required districts to pass policies in line with the state’s. But after groups including the Family Foundation of Virginia sued the state earlier this year, a judge clarified that the VDOE model policies exist as a "guidance document" as defined by law though the lawsuit was dismissed.
State policies detail specific protections for transgender students
VDOE model policies spell out detailed steps districts must take in order to protect transgender students in schools. Among the requirements: not communicating details about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity with parents unless OK’d by the student.
The policy states that “school personnel shall treat information relating to a student’s transgender status as being particularly sensitive, shall not disclose it to other students and parents, and shall only disclose to other school personnel with a legitimate educational interest.”
VDOE’s guidance states that disclosing a student’s transgender status to family can pose imminent safety risks, such as losing family support or housing. Studies have shown LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers.
The state guidance also requires districts to provide students with access to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity, and upon request, provide “single-user, gender-inclusive facilities or other reasonable alternatives.”
Dinwiddie County Public Schools has updated most policies to align with VDOE’s model policies, but Lamneck has concerns about the district’s language regarding access to facilities.
And although Henrico County Public Schools has also updated some policy language, the language isn’t the same as in VDOE’s model policies and the district didn’t address access to facilities at all.
“There are certainly other localities that are making an attempt to adopt policies that are consistent [with VDOE policies,]” Lamneck said. “Some of them just aren't as fully in line with that VDOE policy as we would like to see.”
The VDOE policies require school staff to use a student’s asserted name and pronoun without any substantiating evidence and require districts to provide annual training on LGBTQ+ topics to all school mental health professionals.
For Ty Wright, who graduated from Midlothian High School in Chesterfield County in 2019, VDOE’s policies clarify many things that weren’t clear for them while navigating school as a non-binary and transgender student. Wright uses they/them pronouns. Wright said they had to approach each teacher individually before the start of class to request their proper name and pronouns be used in class.
“So I literally would show up in class like five minutes early and say, ‘Hello, this is my name on the roll. This is the name that I go by, please do not say that other name out loud,’” Wright said. “And also, these are the pronouns that I go by.”
Wright wishes they would’ve been allowed to update their own name in the school’s data system so they didn’t have to make the request individually to every teacher and staff member.
DeHaven Mays, director of school programs with Side-by-Side, does training for Virginia schools about LGBTQ+ issues. Mays uses they/them pronouns. While Mays said they reach out to every school division in the state every year to gauge interest, they’ve only done trainings for a handful of districts, including Richmond Public Schools, Chesterfield County Public Schools, and Henrico County Public Schools.
“We just kind of wait to be invited, I can’t force myself into a school,” Mays said.
Mays and other advocates are prepared to offer comprehensive training to more schools. But without regional cooperation or a commitment to follow state-level guidance, the current patchwork system is likely to remain as is.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story incorrectly reported that the United States Supreme Court weighed in on the Grimm lawsuit. We've corrected the copy to clarify that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of Gavin on all his claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling in favor of Gavin on August 26, 2020. On June 28, 2021, the Supreme Court denied the school board's petition for a writ of certiorari.