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Virginia Department of Education refuses to release emails on transgender policy

Students walk out of Richmond's Open High School in September holding signs supporting transgender students
Students walk out of Richmond's Open High School in September to protest Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposed policies for the treatment of transgender students. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Virginia Department of Education refused to release more than 300 pages of documents and emails related to Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposed policies regarding transgender students.

VPM News requested drafts of the new model guidelines along with correspondence related to those drafts. VPM News also requested emails sent or received by Jillian Balow, the state superintentant of public instruction, containing the word “transgender” from Aug. 1 - Sept. 19.

The department charged $125 for the search and claimed that 87 out of the 90 relevant records were fully excluded under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which exempts working papers of the governor from public release. That exemption allows officials to release the records at their discretion.

The rejection is the latest instance of the Youngkin administration shielding records of its work from public scrutiny.

“It defies notions of open government for a governor or an agency to announce broad programs — much ballyhooed and applicable in every corner of the state — and then close off avenues for citizens and taxpayers to gain any insight into their formulation or application,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, in an email.

The new guidelines — which would need to be individually approved by each of Virginia’s 133 school divisions before implementation — require students’ guardians to give permission for students to use different pronouns from the ones they were assigned at birth. Additionally, students would only be able to use bathrooms, and participate in athletic programs and extracurricular activities that correspond with their biological sex. Critics have questioned the policy’s legality.

VDOE did partially release an email that originated from Ali Ahmad, Youngkin’s director of policy, sent at 6:45 a.m. Sept. 16. Ahmad said the policies would be posted at 9 a.m. and included an attachment with “talking points shared with [state] House/Senate, [attorney general], and [lieutenant governor].”

But VDOE refused to turn over the attachment itself, citing the working papers exemption. The email provided to VPM News was forwarded within VDOE, from Balow to the department’s spokesperson, Charles Pyle.

Pyle did not respond to an email and calls from VPM News on Thursday seeking an interview.

An email sent from the governor's office to several state officials, including the state superintendent of public instruction
While VDOE released an email with talking points attached, it blocked the release of the attachment, citing a law that shields the governor's working papers.

The new guidelines were first reported by conservative outlets. The Youngkin administration did not issue a press release announcing its proposal.

The guidelines sparked immediate controversy with critics, who argued they are illegal. Youngkin defended the policies as part of a push for “parent’s rights.” The policies sparked a student walkout last week at schools across the state and have drawn about 57,000 comments as of Thursday afternoon.

The emails and drafts being withheld cut off one avenue for understanding how the new proposed policies came about.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), a former news reporter, called Virginia’s current open-records laws “swiss cheese” and said lawmakers from both parties have resisted closing loopholes.

But Roem — the first openly transgender state lawmaker to serve in the U.S. — argued the situation was especially egregious in the case of Youngkin’s model policies, given questions surrounding their legality.

“They don't want the public in on the decision making that went into whether or not what they are doing is legal, because as they are going to eventually find out in court, it's not,” Roem said in an interview.

Youngkin’s office has used the working paper exemption to block the release of responses to his education “tipline,” his nonpublic calendar, emails from a controversial adviser and a list of other public-records requests received by his office.