Metro Weekly

Virginia Releases Guidelines That Restrict Trans Students’ Rights

Critics say policies encourage schools to discriminate against transgender students and restrict their access to facilities and activities.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin – Photo Illustration: Todd Franson

The Virginia Department of Education has released new policy guidelines outlining how schools are to treat and accommodate transgender and nonbinary students, imposing many sex-based restrictions on such students and requiring teachers to inform on such students to their parents.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose administration has pushed for the policies, touted the guidelines as empowering parents while creating allegedly “safe” learning environments for students.

“This is about doing what’s best for the child,” Youngkin told the Associated Press. “And oh, by the way, also recognizing that we need to ensure the privacy and dignity and respect of all children and all parents in the school system. And that’s what I think we have … very carefully constructed here.”

A draft of the so-called “model policies” sparked student-led protests across the commonwealth last year.

Critics panned the guidelines for encouraging teachers and fellow students to discriminate against or harass LGBTQ students by misgendering them; placing restrictions on their access to facilities, support services, and school-sponsored activities; and potentially increasing feelings of suicidal ideation among transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming youth.

The model policies also reportedly received pushback during an online public comment period, with the overwhelming majority of the 71,000 comments appearing to oppose the policy.

Some critics have even alleged that, as written, the policies contradict existing court cases or federal laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Under the finalized policies, teachers are required to report a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation to their parents if students make such a disclosure to school staff, potentially “outing” students to their parents. The same applies for students who have expressed suicidal thoughts or feelings. 

The guidelines prohibit schools from using a student’s preferred name and pronouns unless a student’s parents have provided written notice of their consent and a legal document, such as a birth certificate, state- or federal-issued identification, passport, or a court order recognizing a student’s legal name change and any gender-marker changes.

Yet even in cases where parental consent has been received and official documentation submitted, teachers and fellow students are permitted to misgender trans-identifying students, and will not be disciplined for such actions — even if they rise to the level of bullying or harassment, which the guidelines purport to prohibit — on the grounds of free speech or religious objections to homosexuality or gender-nonconformity. 

The guidelines require parents to be notified of, and sign off on, any guidance or counseling services that their children receive, and require schools to designate an administrator or counselor to speak with a student’s parents and the student on questions relating to gender identity.

The guidelines purport to oppose bullying and harassment, requiring parents to be notified within 24 hours of any incident, and encourages administrators to intervene “immediately” to stop such behavior — except in cases where gender-nonconforming students are misgendered.

The model policies also prevent students from using facilities, including restrooms and locker rooms, that align with their gender identity — except where federal or state law requires otherwise.

If federal or state law requires access to gender-affirming facilities, then schools must allow parents of cisgender students to “opt out” of transgender-inclusive facilities and given access to alternative facilities.

Schools must also provide single-user restrooms and changing facilities for all students, regardless of gender.

For overnight trips, students must room with other students sharing the same assigned sex at birth. For extracurricular activities or school athletics requiring sex segregation, students can only participate or compete in activities based on their assigned sex at birth.

Students are not required to dress in gender-neutral or gender-specific clothing in public schools. Still, they will be required, regardless of gender, to dress in a manner “consistent with maintaining a respectful, distraction-free environment” — a vague, undefined phrase that will likely give administrators license to object to, and potentially penalize students for wearing, gender-nonconforming clothing that offends administrators’ personal tastes or sensibilities.

Virginia Department of Education officials defended the finalized policies.

“There is nothing more important than creating a safe and vibrant learning environment for all our students,” Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said in a statement. “These policies clarify that parents are the appropriate decision-makers regarding their child’s health and wellbeing, and that students are best served when parents, teachers, and school administrators work as a team to support a child’s education. They also affirm that discrimination and bullying of any kind will not be tolerated in Virginia’s public schools.”

Dr. Lisa Coons, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, argued that the changes allow parents to be partners with teachers and administrators in their children’s education, and encouraged all school boards in the state to adopt policies either identical to, or similar in scope to, the model policies.

LGBTQ advocates objected to the guidelines, casting them as an attack on transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students, and encouraged more liberal-leaning local school boards to resist adopting the model policies — just as conservative-leaning boards refused to adopt trans-friendly model policies under former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in 2021.

“We object to the VA DOE updated model policies. As unbelievable as it is, they are WORSE than those released in 2022. They purport to respect all students and parents, yet they actually manage to disrespect every family and student while specifically targeting our most vulnerable students,” FCPS Pride said in a statement.

“We are too smart and kind to fall for this effort to stoke fear, homophobia, and transphobia while imposing logistical and legal chaos on all Commonwealth public schools,” the organization, which CPS Pride advocates on behalf of LGBTQ students and staff in Fairfax County, continued. “We have spoken to [Superintendent] Dr. [Michelle] Reid, who has promised that Fairfax County Public Schools will do the right thing to protect our students, by ensuring that each and every student, including transgender and gender expansive students, will be welcome, safe, included, and respected in our schools.”

The Pride Liberation Project, the largest student-led LGBTQ advocacy group in the commonwealth, condemned the new VDOE guidelines, dubbing them collectively as the “Don’t Be Trans” policies.

“As a current transgender student, ‘Don’t Be Trans’ makes me feel extremely anxious to go to school. I feel like school isn’t a safe place for me anymore because these guidelines force me to hide my true self,” Spencer Vernon, a student in York County, said in a statement.

“My school used to have rainbow stickers that said we were a safe space, and they were really important for me to accept myself,” Icarus, a trans student in Virginia Beach, said in a statement. “‘Don’t Be Trans’ forces students back into the closet and takes away the safety I found in those rainbows. I’m terrified that my friends and siblings won’t be able to attend safe schools.”

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