The Stafford County School Board has approved two new policies that prohibit discrimination against students and staff in the county’s schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The board voted 4-3 to approve both an expanded equal opportunity employment policy and an “equal educational opportunity” policy for students that will allow them to seek help from administrators if they believe they are being targeted for harassment or discrimination.
The equal educational opportunity policy does not include any specifics on how schools will deal with allegations of discrimination, instead leaving it up to the superintendent or a designee to develop a plan to implement the policy. That plan must also be reviewed by the school board on a regular basis.
The policy also does not require schools to allow transgender children to use bathrooms, locker rooms, and other shared facilities that match their gender identity. Rather, once a student brings forth an issue, whether it’s the use of names and gender pronouns or access to restrooms, administrators can then work with the student (and in some cases, their parents) to accommodate their needs.
By passing the policy, Stafford County becomes the 14th jurisdiction in the commonwealth with a policy expressly forbidding discrimination against LGBTQ students and employees. The other jurisdictions with similar protections are: the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Charlottesville, Manassas, Manassas Park, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Richmond, and Arlington, Fairfax, Albemarle, Prince William and Loudoun counties.
Superintendent Scott Kizner told the Fredericksburg-based newspaper The Free Lance-Star that the new policies require administrators to take action to address concerns. Previously, the decision of whether to take action was left up to individual principals or administrators.
He added that any changes to school facilities — such as the addition of unisex bathrooms, for example — resulting from the new policies would not be adopted district-wide, but on a case-by-case basis.
At least 200 people signed up to speak during the school board’s public comment period, which lasted for more than four hours before a vote was taken around midnight on Wednesday morning. Attendance was so high that four overflow rooms had to be used to accommodate speakers. At one point, deputies from the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office had to break up a minor altercation between audience members.
Among those speaking in support of the nondiscrimination policy was Gavin Grimm, a transgender man who is currently suing the Gloucester County School Board over a policy that bars transgender children from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah Chase (Falmouth) said she believes the school board created a culture that condones discrimination against LGBTQ students when it reversed a 2015 decision by administrators at a local elementary school to allow a transgender female student to use the girls’ restroom. She criticized the board for failing to protect the child’s identity, as it released personally identifiable information about the student.
Chase also criticized an incident in which a transgender student was left alone in the open during an active shooter drill because staff did not know what to do with her and had barred her from entering the girls’ locker room. She said that both incidents indicate to her a need to explicitly protect LGBTQ students from discrimination.
In response to concerns from audience members that adopting pro-LGBTQ policies would make cisgender students vulnerable to assault in restrooms, locker rooms, or other intimate spaces, board member Pamela Yeung (Garrisonville) said: “There isn’t statistically significant evidence to support fears that protecting these groups would lead to un-protecting others. We will protect every child.”
Those voting against the policy objected to it because they do not believe it is supported by a majority of county residents, and believe it will make the board vulnerable to lawsuits from those that oppose expanding LGBTQ legal protections. A student in Fairfax County sued after the county’s school board approved an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policy, alleging that potentially being forced to share spaces with transgender students was a form of sexual harassment and that the policy violated his free speech rights. The Supreme Court eventually threw out that case, finding the student and his parents lacked standing to sue.