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Hanover School Board considering new bathroom access policy

People stand with signs
People stand with signs next to the Studio Two-Three van before a March 2022 meeting of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. They attended the meeting to protest the school board's decision to have the Alliance Defending Freedom review the district's bathroom access policy. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Update: This article was updated Aug. 10 and 11:48 a.m. to include details about future school board meetings.

The Hanover County School Board began weighing a new draft policy Tuesday outlining if — and when — transgender students in the district can access school bathrooms that align with their gender identity. They’re holding another public comment session about the policy next Tuesday evening and will vote on the policy Aug. 30.

The group Alliance Defending Freedom — which has been deemed an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — helped draft the policy, according to school board chair John Axselle. In an email to VPM News on Monday, Axselle said it would be premature to comment on the policy. However, Axselle did confirm ADF’s involvement — which he invited — in crafting the policy.

“The proposed policy represents a joint effort between the School Board, Alliance Defending Freedom counsel and our School Board Attorney to meet legal requirements,” Axselle told VPM News.

A previous proposal to allow transgender students in Hanover to access bathrooms that align with their gender identity was voted down by members of the school board, including Axeselle.

Stephanie Fisher, the mother of a 9-year-old transgender student in the district who is part of a lawsuit against the school board, said she doesn’t like the new draft policy. She pointed out that it gives the school board the final say on individual transgender students’ requests and indicates that disciplinary records could influence their decision.

Person holds sign
Stephanie Fisher attends a March meeting of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“It furthers this baseless narrative that trans kids are inherently dangerous when trans kids are more likely to be the victims of assault versus the ones causing harm,” Fisher said. “So, those pieces are incredibly offensive and actually really dangerous for our kids.”

Research shows that transgender people are four times as likely to be victims of violence as cisgender people, and transgender teens are more likely to be victims of violence and attempt suicide than their peers.

The draft policy states that bathroom access corresponds with students’ “biological sex, as reflected on their birth certificates.” Fisher said that language is problematic for transgender students with corrected birth certificates, like her daughter.

“It feels we're having to prove to the school board that our kids are trans enough,” Fisher said.

Fisher said she felt like she had no choice but to change her daughter’s birth certificate after the school board failed to approve rules mirroring the state’s model policy that outlined protections for transgender students.

“I figured that if we had an updated birth certificate, there wasn't going to be much that the district could do in terms of pushing back,” Fisher said.

She filed paperwork to change the gender marker and name on her child’s birth certificate but said she would’ve waited to do all of this — if the district had a policy affirming her daughter’s access to the girls’ bathroom, among other rights.

“I am resentful that I felt like we had to pick her name under duress because we had to get moving,” Fisher said. “We weren't going to let our child suffer.”

Fisher’s daughter, a rising 5th grader, has been using the girls’ bathroom in Hanover County Public Schools for more than a year. But Fisher worries that if this new draft policy is approved, it could lead to increased bullying and harassment of transgender students like her daughter.

“She doesn't walk around with her papers; should she be questioned,” Fisher said. “Under this policy, any student or teacher who wants to make an issue of her — my child, being trans — and using the girl's room could easily create a terribly embarrassing issue for her.”