After a summer of virtual public comments, dozens of community members showed up in person Thursday at the Albemarle County Office Building-McIntire to show their support for a policy outlining the rights of transgender and gender-expansive students in the school system.
Later that evening, the School Board voted unanimously to approve that policy, which was proposed last month. All school boards in Virginia are required to adopt policies regarding the treatment of transgender students by the start of the 2021-22 year.
The board also unanimously voted to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for staff members, in line with the recently announced requirement for Albemarle County local government employees that goes into effect Sept. 15. The Charlottesville School Board voted last week to require the vaccine of division employees.
Albemarle County employees, including those in the school division, have until Sept. 15 to submit proof of vaccination or a weekly negative COVID-19 test, if they choose not to get vaccinated.
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas said the school system and local government are working together to collect data on who is vaccinated and who is not.
“I appreciate the support of the board,” he said. “I believe this is a critical strategy to protect our employees, children and community.”
The board’s decision comes as the division is preparing to welcome thousands of students and staff members into buildings for in-person classes five days a week. The first day of classes is Aug. 23. As of Thursday, 10 positive cases have been reported in the schools since July 1, and 19 students at Stone-Robinson Elementary are quarantining.
The demonstration before the board’s virtual meeting was hosted by Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County to show support for the transgender student policy and for Black, Indigenous and people of color and LGBTQIA+ youth.
“We do believe the county is on the right path,” said Amanda Moxham, a parent with Hate-Free. “It’s our job to continue to challenge them.”
Under the policy, every student is entitled to be addressed by the name and pronouns the student prefers and to have access to the bathroom and locker room that align with their gender identity.
The policy requires a range of trainings for school staff, including on federal and state laws, strategies to prevent bullying and fostering a more gender-inclusive environment for all students. Additionally, the policy also outlines the scope of parent involvement in the process for students who want to transition and calls on school administrators to keep in mind that gender-expansive students might not be supported at home.
In response to parent concerns about the notification provisions, the board’s student representative AJ Johnson said that it would be better for parents to respect that their children are not ready to tell them.
“It’s better to have your child come to you when they’re ready, they’re comfortable, they’re not scared and tell you their own experiences and how they dealt with it,” he said.
Albemarle’s policy is aimed at ensuring that gender-expansive students feel safe and supported at school. According to a 2017 study by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 84% of transgender students say they have been bullied and harassed at school. The Trevor Project’s 2021 national survey found that 42% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
As cars drove around the County Office Building honking, attendees gathered on the lawn, holding signs and wearing Pride flags.
Ollie Nacey, a rising freshman at Western Albemarle High School, attended the rally with her family.
“I feel like all of my support thus far has kind of been hiding behind a computer,” she said. “I spoke at the School Board meeting, and wrote the article for the school newspaper. Because all of my activism has been digital and none of it’s been me physically going anywhere, so I really want to take part and be at a thing physically.”
Nacey’s articles in the Henley student newspaper were highlighted in local media and criticized in a national conservative publication. When that happened, she said she wasn’t scared and thought her mother would handle it.
“I also thought it was outrageous that somebody would call out a 13-year-old,” she said.
Mary Nacey said the family wanted to support their daughter in attending the demonstration.
“If she’s brave enough to stand up and say what she believes, then we need to have even the slightest portion of that bravery and stand behind here because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Mary Nacey added that she supports the policy regarding transgender and gender-expansive students.
“We are immensely proud of our School Board for a decisive and strong decision on this and not taking the easy way out and backing down,” she said. “I’m excited and optimistic for the school year and hopefully we keep on this track and keep it moving.”
The rally — filled with chants of “teach the truth, protect the youth” and “white supremacy has got to go” — capped a summer in which parents for and against division policies have flooded inboxes of School Board members, as well as the public comment period at meetings, leading the division to limit public comment to 40 speakers.
Initially, a group of parents was upset about anti-bias lessons piloted at Henley Middle School — concerns that eventually caught the attention of national media. Those lessons, the parents said, discriminated against their children who hold different beliefs, infringed on parental rights and created divisions.
Another group of parents disagreed and urged the board to continue to implement those lessons at other middle schools and the broader anti-racism policy. The parents also advocated in favor of the policy regarding the treatment of transgender and gender-expansive students.
A host of other issues — including masks, in-person meetings and overcrowding in the schools — have been raised during public comment remarks during meetings this summer.
During Thursday’s meeting, several people continued to oppose the policy regarding the treatment of transgender and gender-expansive students. They said the policy lacked community input, went beyond state requirements and put other students at risk, among other concerns.
The Rev. David Stoddart, of Church of Our Saviour, said he strongly supported the draft policy, adding that schools should be safe places for every single student.
“I understand that this involves some changes in our school policies,” Stoddart said. “For some, it demands a real change in outlook, but dealing with everything from pronouns to bathrooms is essential if we’re going to create a safe and caring environment for everyone. And where there is resistance to that, we need to meet it with love and education so that we can overcome any intolerance that is rooted in ignorance and refusal to accept the human reality of gender-expansive people.”