Prince William School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers – Photo: Facebook.
Just as several nearby jurisdictions did last school year, Prince William County Public Schools is looking to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy. The Prince William County School Board will discuss the issue starting on Wednesday, Sept. 7, with further discussion and an expected vote on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
“It’s my understanding there will be quite a few people to discuss this at the board meeting on the 7th,” says School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers, who supports amending the policy, also known as Policy 060. “I don’t know whether we’ll be able to get to everybody upfront, because we have other business to carry on.”
Sawyers is hoping to avoid the ugly scenes that occurred in nearby Fairfax County last year when that county’s school board voted to add gender identity to its existing nondiscrimination policy. Spurred on by groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Foundation of Virginia, conservative activists and angry parents and community members filled the audience, causing disruptions and subjecting the members of the board to verbal abuse and threats to vote them out of office.
“It’s my job as chairman to ensure that everyone knows we’re running a business meeting,” says Sawyers. “We need to keep it civilized, and passions will run high. But we also need to understand that this is a government meeting that needs to move efficiently. It’s my duty to control the meeting, and I plan to do so.”
Asked whether he is concerned about the possibility of threats against him or his family, Sawyers says that has already happened with other non-LGBT issues that have come before the board.
“I hope it doesn’t stoop to that level,” he says. “But my family has thick skin. My wife is a passionate supporter of LGBT rights, and I am too. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but at the same time, I’m not going to let fear stop me from doing the right thing.”
In Sawyers’ view, the whole point of a nondiscrimination policy is to ensure there are protections for and equal access provided to minority groups who might otherwise be marginalized. By amending Policy 060, the board will be ensuring that students and employees have a safe space in which to receive an education and work, and hopefully helping to prevent students from resorting to desperate measures such as suicide because of bullying or mistreatment at the hands of school administrators.
But conservative activists are already marshaling their forces for a fight at the two meetings, led by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas), one of the more vocal anti-LGBT members of the General Assembly. Marshall is expected to address the school board in an attempt to dissuade the members from amending the policy. To counter their efforts, LGBT allies are spreading the word and encouraging supporters to attend the meetings. A number have already signed up to address the board and will focus their testimony on countering or debunking the expected anti-transgender talking points and scaremongering over bathrooms typically employed by opponents when such issues are discussed.
Opponents of the policy change are expected to argue, as they did in Fairfax, that Dillon’s Rule prevents localities from approving policies that create protected classes not recognized by the General Assembly. This is the crux of the argument used by the conservative law firm Liberty Counsel when it sued Fairfax County over its addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy. That lawsuit was thrown out, but could be restored if the Virginia Supreme Court reverses the lower court’s decision.
But Attorney General Mark Herring (D), released an opinion last year that found that while Boards of Supervisors and city or county councils were hamstrung by Dillon’s Rule, school boards were not. Herring derived this authority from a section of the Virginia Constitution that specifically grants powers to school boards to oversee “the supervision of schools,” which would include crafting policy addressing students’ and employees’ rights.
“I am not concerned about our legal authority to update our nondiscrimination policy and add the five words ‘sexual orientation and gender identity,'” says Sawyers.
Currently, Albemarle, Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as the cities of Alexandria, Virginia Beach, and Charlottesville all have adopted LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies. The City of Richmond’s policy only includes sexual orientation, but some courts have found that protections covering “sexual orientation” can be extended to transgender individuals.