A bill before the General Assembly this year would require the state Department of Education to develop model policies for issues affecting transgender students.
The proposed legislation comes as disparate school policies across the state have contributed to lawsuits brought against school systems and as transgender Virginians gain visibility in schools.
The bill, proposed by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Delegate-elect Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, would require the model policies to cover non-discrimination laws, bullying and harassment, protecting students’ privacy, sex-based dress codes and identifying students. The policies would have to be developed by the end of 2020.
Currently each school creates its own policy, often when parents of transgender students bring it to administrators’ attention, Simon said.
“There’s no manual for folks to turn to to say, ‘Hey, what do I do when I’m confronted with a transgender child in my school or in my classroom?’” he said. “Creating a consistent policy that’s a good resource for teachers and administrators also creates some predictability, stability for families.”
In some cases a student faces one set of policies in middle school and a different set once moving onto high school, said James Parrish, the director of the Virginia Values Coalition. Parrish was formerly with Equality Virginia, which approached Simon as a potential sponsor of this bill.
“This is still a new issue for a lot of people, and it centers around education,” Parrish said. “It’s easier to educate people when you have a best practices policy to point to and say this is what we do, and this is why we do it. And then it doesn’t seem so haphazard or pulled out of the air.”
Individual school boards could adopt “more comprehensive policies” but would need to adopt policies “consistent with” the ones created by the education department by the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.
“The Board of Education and the Virginia Department of Education develop guidance documents as a means of assisting school divisions in the implementation of statutes and regulations,” Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email. If legal questions arise, “local school boards consult with their attorneys,” he said.
Pyle did not offer any comment on the bill, HB 145 and did not confirm whether The Virginia Department of Education has model policies regarding transgender students. There were none listed on the department’s publicly available guidance documents. The Obama administration’s guidance for school boards had protected students wishing to use restrooms of their choice but the Trump administration had removed that guidance.
School boards creating their own policies has preceded controversies.
In August, a federal judge ruled that former Gloucester High student Gavin Grimm’s constitutional rights were violated by the school board denying him access to the boys’ restroom. Grimm said he avoided using the bathroom at school and developed health problems as a result. Grimm was recently elected to the board of the ACLU.
After a high school French teacher in West Point refused to call a student by the boy’s preferred pronoun, the school board fired him for insubordination in 2018. School officials told the teacher the refusal would violate school policies against creating a hostile learning environment, The Washington Post reported.
Simon said that his assumption is that gender noncomforming students or “anybody that doesn’t fit neatly under the gender spectrum” would also be covered by this bill.
The number of transgender students in Virginia is unknown, although a study by UCLA’s Wiiliams School of Law estimated that 4,150 Virginians between the ages of 13 and 17 are transgender.
“Even if it’s one or two transgender students in a county, those students need to be welcomed in their school,” Simon said.
Senator Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced the Senate version of the bill, SB 161. The General Assembly will also consider other bills that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.