Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash
Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

Virginia schools will have to adopt the new transgender guidelines—or more comprehensive policies— after a 30-day comment period beginning on Sept. 26. 

When you send your kids to school each morning, you expect them to be protected. For thousands of students in Virginia, certain protections are on the verge of getting stripped away.

Despite progressive changes passed by the 2020 General Assembly, accommodations for Virginia’s transgender students are once again a point of debate. On Sept. 16, the Virginia Department of Education, under Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, released new Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools.

The 18-page document mentions the treatment of transgender students early on, in the second paragraph under the first section, “Purpose.” Then, the publication brings up the Fourteenth Amendment—centered around the rights of citizens and equal protections—before making two major claims: that the 2021 Model Policies promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools, and that they also disregarded the rights of parents and ignored other legal and constitutional principles. 

The Virginia Education Association (VEA) painted a different picture when the news of the new guidelines broke. 

Dr. James Fedderman, president of the VEA said in a statement: “The VEA unequivocally condemns these dangerous new guidelines put out by the Youngkin administration targeting LGBTQ+ students. The policies if implemented would no doubt threaten the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students and set their recent civil rights gains back in Virginia. You don’t have to look further than the disproportionate LGBTQ+ youth suicide and homeless rates to understand the immeasurable emotional and physical harm outing vulnerable students to certain parents would cause. This policy targets an already marginalized student group, offers no measurable benefit, and is simply cruel. The Youngkin administration is pulling from the Massive Resistance playbook to target a marginalized student group under the guise of ‘parental rights.'”

So just how many students could these changes impact? Well, according to a study published in June by The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, approximately 1.6 million Americans age 13 and older identified as transgender. Of those, over 32,000 lived in Virginia—and 6,200 of those Virginians were between the ages of 13 and 17. 

What Changes?

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law tasking the state Department of Education to develop and make available model policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public schools. 

Even though the law passed, the policies lacked enforcement. As of early September, Virginia Mercury reported that approximately 90% of Virginia school boards had yet to adopt the policies, statistics the publication credited to LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Virginia

Despite the number of school boards not implementing the policies, the 2021 changes included ensuring compliance with nondiscrimination laws, maintaining a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment, protection of student privacy and the confidentiality of sensitive information, and more. 

Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Travis Hackworth proposed Senate Bill (SB) 20. The bill aimed to eliminate the requirement that each school board adopt policies consistent with the VDOE’s model policies for the treatment of transgender students. Democrats in the Virginia Senate slashed the legislation and it did not become law. 

However, the bill getting defeated didn’t stop the Virginia Department of Education from making changes to the model policies. Adoption of the new document as-is would require students to use bathrooms based on their biological sex, except in circumstances recognized under federal law, or single-user bathrooms or facilities denoted by appropriate signage. 

The policy would also require school personnel to refer to minors by the names—or closely associated nicknames—and pronouns on their official records, unless they received permission from a parent stating otherwise. Oh, and speaking of parents, the policies state that schools have the option to “defer to parents” if a child expresses a gender that differs with their biological sex while at school. 

As of the publication of the 2022 Model Policies, the document noted that the 2021 Model Policies were ineffective. However, The Washington Post reported that Virginia schools will adopt the guidelines—or more comprehensive policies—after a 30-day comment period beginning on Sept. 26, pending approval of a final version.