Metro Weekly

Loudoun County School Board rejects LGBT protections

Board approves compromise statement but shies away from explicit protections over fears of lawsuits

Loudoun County School Board – Photo: Beth Huck, via Facebook.

The Loudoun County School Board has rejected adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its equal employment policy.

The board had previously delayed voting on adding the protections twice, citing concerns over the implications of the policy and whether passing such protections would put them at risk of a lawsuit, reports LoudounNow.

On Tuesday night, after two dozens speakers addressed the board arguing on either side of the measure, the board voted 5-4 to reject the protections. Board Members Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), Beth Huck (At Large), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and Joy Maloney (Broad Run) voted in favor.

However, unlike their peers in nearby Prince William County, after the proposal was defeated, the Loudoun board members took a step further in an attempt to show that they are not condoning discrimination.

All nine members voted unanimously in favor of a compromise motion by Board Member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn). That compromise adds a paragraph to the district’s equal employment policy stating that the school system hires employees based on merit and excellence.

That paragraph also states that the board “recognizes and values the diversity of the students and broader community it serves, and encourages diversity within its workforce.”

Although they voted in favor of the compromise, the four LGBT rights supporters on the board said they would have preferred to explicitly spell out protections that would prevent LGBT employees from being fired or future applicants from being rejected for a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sheridan, who brought up the original nondiscrimination motion, said she introduced it because she knew of several LGBT teachers who felt that they must conceal their identity because of the fear of being fired. She also noted that the Republican-dominated Loudoun County Board of Supervisors approved similar language to its employee policy seven years ago.

“Those are real stories in our school system,” she said. “I see you, I hear you, I speak for you. I may not have a majority with me tonight, but I will continue to use my voice and my position to stand with you.”

Sheridan’s position was bolstered by a letter sent to the board from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who used to represent the eastern half of the county in the State Senate. In the letter, Herring reiterated a previous opinion that school boards were well within their rights to pass nondiscrimination protections for employees and students.

But conservative elements within the state have long argued that Dillon’s Rule, which prohibits local boards of supervisors from recognizing protected classes that are not recognized by the General Assembly, applies to local school boards as well.

As a result, after the Fairfax County School Board added sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy, it was sued by the right-wing legal organization Liberty Counsel on behalf of a student who claims he is uncomfortable socially interacting with transgender students, let alone potentially having to share restrooms with them. That matter is pending before the Virginia Supreme Court.

Citing the lack of a definitive ruling in both the Fairfax case and a Supreme Court case out of Gloucester County on whether Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination apply to transgender students, the school board’s conservative majority urged their colleagues to exercise caution before pushing through such a controversial policy change. Driving that point home, Will Estrada, the chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, warned that the board would likely be sued if they were to approve the LGBT protections.

“What this is is a solution in search of a problem,” Estrada said. “There is no evidence that Loudoun teachers, principals, and staff are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.”

In addition to Fairfax County, the cities of Fairfax, Charlottesville, Alexandria, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, Arlington County, and Albemarle County all have policies, similar to the one proposed in Loudoun, which protect students and employees discrimination. In addition, 60 other counties or independent cities within the state have adopted LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying protections for students. Only three counties — Grayson, Stafford and Gloucester — explicitly deny protections to transgender students.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com