Updated at 10:15 p.m. with more comments from the meeting
A proposed policy aimed at protecting transgender students in the Albemarle County school division is necessary, several county residents told the School Board on Thursday, while others called for division leadership to rewrite the 11-page policy.
Public comment was capped at 40 people as the division implemented a new lottery system to randomly select speakers when more than 40 people signed up.
Although several topics came up during public comment, including opposition to mask requirements for students and anti-basis lessons piloted at Henley Middle School this past spring, the draft policy regarding the treatment of transgender and gender-expansive students dominated public comment.
On July 28, the division will hold a virtual information session on the proposed policy. The board is expected to vote on the policy Aug. 12.
Gender-expansive is a collective term that includes transgender and nonbinary people, all of whom having a gender identity that doesn’t conform to the one they were assigned at birth.
The 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.
“When these students do not feel affirmed or safe, they cannot learn or participate in school activities effectively,” according to the draft policy.
Seth Oldham, a parent of a nonbinary child and a transgender child, supported the policy and said it would help make the schools safe places.
“Since this started three years ago, things have not been easy, but my kids have delighted me as they have become their authentic selves and as they work through the challenges of adolescence,” he said.
Oldham said the policy would help to make school a place where his children can work through those challenges.
“I hope that you all will support it with all of the energy that you have and know that this really will make a really big difference in the lives of real people,” he said.
Because of a new state law, all school divisions must adopt policies for transgender students by the start of the 2021-22 school year. The Virginia Department of Education has provided model policies that school boards can adapt.
Following public comment, the board reviewed the draft policy that would ensure students can be addressed by the name and pronouns the student prefers; neither parental consent nor a legal name change would be required for that to occur. Additionally, gender-expansive students should be able to play on whichever sports teams and use the bathroom they prefer, per the draft policy.
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 some cases, gender-expansive students may not want their parents to know about their gender-expansive or transitioning status,” according to the draft policy. “These situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis and will require schools to balance the goal of supporting the student with the requirement that parents be kept informed about their children.”
Board member David Oberg said he wanted administrators to provide further clarity about who in the school would make those decisions and under what circumstances.
“This is something I think a parent should know about,” Oberg said. “If there’s a specific reason for a parent not to know, I get that. I think it should be clear, so we don’t have employees put in the position to make a tough call themselves.”
School Board attorney Ross Holden said there were a lot of potential factors and that they were trying to balance a student’s right to privacy and the parent’s right to know. He added that the team writing the policy had talked with school counselors and the Gay Straight Alliance clubs at schools about more specific language.
“Because there is such a wide array of issues that could arise, we felt for purposes of policy that we would be general and then try to address things as we get more experience with the issues that could arise under the policy,” he said.
The fact that parents might not be notified if their child wants to transition or identify by a different gender than they were assigned at birth while at school worried some community members who spoke Thursday.
“The idea that ACPS doesn’t need to inform parents of a student’s desire to transition or of a student’s desire to exist as a different gender at school is alarming,” said John Bryce, a county parent.
Bryce and others said the division should convene a committee of parents from diverse backgrounds to rework the draft.
Other parents said they were concerned about the provisions regarding sports, bathrooms and overnight trips.
“With respect to overnight class trips, sleeping arrangements should be discussed with the student and family,” according to the draft policy.
Citizens Advocating for Responsible Education, a local parent group, encouraged people to speak out against the policy in an email before the meeting. Several speakers echoed the points in the email.
Ryan Looney, a county resident, said she was motivated to speak up because of the CARE email and that she fully supports the draft policy.
“These simple policies provide the support and protection trans kids need,” Looney said. “… The American Academy of Pediatrics states that policies exclusionary to trans kids have detrimental effects on their physical and mental health. Trans kids aren’t something theoretical. They are our living, breathing friends and neighbors, and they deserve to be treated with respect, and given the promise of a safe, inclusive education. This policy threatens no one and benefits many.”
At the end of the meeting, board members said they hoped gender-expansive students felt supported and welcomed in the schools.
“When people speak, it’s not representative of our schools,” board vice chairwoman Katrina Callsen said.
Board member Judy Le said that though the board won’t discuss or vote on the policy until August, that could be a long time for affected students and their families.
“I really want anyone who’s listening tonight and our trans and gender-expansive students and community members to know that we see you, and in my mind, your humanity is not up for debate,” Le said.