Metro Weekly

Virginia lawmakers reject repeal of trans student protections

Measure to allow school districts to refuse to adopt trans-inclusive policies deadlocks in House Education Committee.

Virginia House of Delegates chamber – Photo: Antony-22, via Wikimedia.

A Virginia House of Delegates committee defeated a bill seeking to allow local school boards to opt out of policies and guidelines developed by the Virginia Department of Education that are intended to make school environments more welcoming and inclusive for transgender students.

The so-called “model policies” — which have been a source of contention, particularly in socially conservative school districts — were developed by the Virginia Department of Education in response to legislation, passed last year by Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, that sought to provide protections for transgender students from discrimination, harassment, or bullying. But some advocates feared that Republican control over the lower chamber would enable attempts to repeal those protections.

For example, the model policies emphasize the importance of affirming transgender students’ gender identities, allowing for them to be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns, have their gender identity accurately reflected on school records and transcripts, access facilities like bathrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, and participate on intramural sports teams that match their gender identity. There is an exemption for sport teams that fall under the purview of the Virginia High School League.

While not all school boards are required to adopt verbatim the language of VDOE’s model policies, they are expected to adopt similar policies that will ensure transgender youth are not discriminated against and are able to access resources that would otherwise be made available to their cisgender peers.

The bill in question, HB 988 was approved by a House Education subcommittee, but failed to advance to the floor after the measure deadlocked before the full committee on an 11-11 vote, with Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) voting against it. The measure, proposed by Del. Scott Wyatt (R-Mechanicsville), would have kept the VDOE guidelines in place but given local school boards free reign to ignore them — thereby creating a two-tiered system where only the most liberal jurisdictions would have any sort of protections for trans students.

Proponents of the bill argued that lawmakers should defer to local control of elected school boards, in which members could adopt or reject policies as they see fit, based on voters’ preferences or prevailing social attitudes. Even with the 2020 legislation in place requiring boards to adopt some trans-friendly policies, several school boards across the state refused to pass such policies, including Hanover, Augusta and Russell counties.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Hanover County School Board after it voted not to implement the policies.

LGBTQ advocates say the protections outlined by the model policies and adopted by some school boards are essential to the well-being of trans youth, ensuring they are affirmed in their gender identity and are not harassed or bullied by fellow students or administrators who believe LGBTQ identity is abnormal or immoral. By adopting pro-trans policies, they say, transgender students are less likely to be bullied or socially ostracized, which can lead to lower self-esteem, depression, feelings of isolation, and even suicidal ideation.

A similar bill introduced by Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell) was defeated in committee in the Democratic-run Senate last week. 

Kelly Carter Merrill, a Hanover County resident and parent of a trans student, told the Capital News Service she was relieved that the proposed bills failed, as they would have contributed to a school environment where bullying and harassment of trans students is condoned.

“By rejecting this legislation, our school districts will be compelled to continue to work toward building an inclusive school climate for my child and other transgender students,” Merrill said in a statement.

The statewide LGBTQ rights organization Equality Virginia, celebrated the defeat of the House bill on Twitter, thanking parents and students who had advocated against the bill, with more than 12,000 emails urging its defeat being sent to lawmakers in the run-up to the vote. 

Research has shown that transgender youth are at higher risk of suicidal ideation than their peers, with more than half of trans or nonbinary youth saying they’ve contemplated suicide in the past year, and 1 in 5 attempting it. A 2020 peer-reviewed study by researchers from The Trevor Project, the nation’s largest suicide prevention group for LGBTQ youth, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that trans and nonbinary youth who experience discrimination due to their gender identity are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not.

However, research also shows that trans youth with access to gender-affirming spaces — such as those that VDOE’s model policies seek to create — report lower rates of suicidal ideation. A 2021 peer-reviewed study published in Transgender Health found that trans and nonbinary youth who had their gender identity accepted or affirmed by adults had significantly lower odds of attempting suicide in the past year.

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