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Parents push back on transgender policies

Isle of Wight County’s School Board received backlash from parents, and one student, at its July 12 meeting over a series of proposed policy changes pertaining to transgender students.

Per a state law passed last year, Virginia school boards have until September to adopt transgender-inclusive policies pertaining to the use of bathrooms and locker rooms, student privacy, bullying and harassment, sex-based dress codes and sex-specific school activities with the exception of athletics, which are governed by the Virginia High School League.

“The school has no business interfering in family values and morals,” said Candice Vande Brake, a mother from the county’s Windsor District.

She then called upon the School Board members to “combat the regulations that are being passed down to the schools from the state,” which she accused of normalizing transgender and non-heterosexual orientation and diminishing families who practice Christianity.

Another fear several speakers, including Vande Brake, expressed involved a hypothetical scenario in which a teenage boy claims to identify as female to gain access to the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms for the purpose of molesting them.

“He walks out and tells everyone nothing happened and he was just in the girls’ bathroom because he identifies as a female,” Vande Brake said. “He is protected under policy and regulation, and the girl, she just becomes a statistic.”

“Past experiences have been hard enough for students of younger grades, of middle school, to already introduce changing in locker rooms and sharing restrooms with their peers of the same gender, but now to have to do it with the opposite gender, this is a whole other issue,” said Ethan Swartz, a student at Smithfield High School.

Swartz then posed a similar scenario to Vande Brake’s.

“A man who says he is a woman for the day and goes into the women’s locker room and sexually assaults a woman, sure, that person may be expelled or suspended or whatever, but you can’t undo the damage that is done mentally to that woman,” Swartz argued. “I truly believe that we should stop it now before this issue even comes up.”

“So it’s OK if you go in the men’s bathroom today but if you change your mind you can go into the women’s bathroom tomorrow, and if I don’t agree with that, then I’m the bad person?” Thomas DuBois of Smithfield asked, rhetorically. “If you’re telling me that you’re going to force this on my kids, I’m going to turn around and make sure all of you are off this board.”

“I was a boy, a teenage boy, at one time, believe it or not, and guess what? When I was 13 and 14 years old … me and my buddies were like, ‘Oh, I dare you to go do this’ … ‘I dare you to say you’re a girl today and go into the girls’ bathroom,’” DuBois said. “Who’s going to stop them? Are y’all?”

According to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, the matter of transgender students being allowed to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity is now settled law. The U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected the Gloucester County School Board’s appeal to reinstate its transgender bathroom ban.

The case had originated in 2015 when Gavin Grimm, then a 15-year-old student at Gloucester County High School, sued the school board over a policy that required him to use only bathrooms that corresponded with his sex at birth — female — or single-user bathrooms. In 2020, after a five-year legal battle, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the ban unconstitutional.

Casey Butler, community engagement director for the LGBT Life Center of Hampton Roads, called the likelihood of male students claiming to be transgender for the purpose of molesting their female classmates in girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms “farfetched,” and denied that transgender-inclusive policies would protect the rapist, and not the victim, in such a case.

“A sign on a door isn’t going to keep someone from attacking someone in a bathroom,” Butler said.

He called on media outlets to “change the narrative” from focusing on the concerns of the dominant cisgender group — the term referring to individuals who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth — to focusing on the heightened risk of hate crimes and harassment transgender individuals face.

In 2018, a conservative group known as the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a complaint on behalf of a Georgia mother who said her 5-year-old daughter had been assaulted by a boy claiming to be “gender fluid.”

Such incidents appear to be rare. The fact-checking website PolitiFact states its staff combed through conservative blogs for hours in 2016 searching for specific incidents and found three cases in the United States since 1999 in which a biological male was convicted of a crime that involved his entering a women’s bathroom or locker room dressed as a woman.

“It’s unclear if any of the three identified as transgender women, but none of those cases happened in cities where it would have been legal for a transgender woman to use the women’s room anyway,” the PolitiFact article states. “And none involved sexual assault or rape.”

According to the Virginia Department of Education, students are considered transgender if, at school, they consistently assert a gender identity different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

“This should involve more than a casual declaration of gender identity, but it does not necessarily require any substantiating evidence nor any required minimum duration of expressed gender identity,” states a VDOE guidance document on a series of model transgender policies the department has created to help local school boards comply with the state law.

As the law is written, those that choose not to use the model policy language verbatim and instead write their own policies must still stay “consistent” or be “more comprehensive” than what the VDOE has recommended.

John Collick of Colosse Road, who’s running against board Chairwoman Jackie Carr for her Carrsville District seat in November, took particular issue with the guidance document’s assertion that disclosing a student’s transgender status can pose imminent safety risks to students without supportive parents, such as that student losing family support or housing, and its subsequent recommendation that if transgender students ask school officials that their parents not be informed, “this should be respected.”

“In reading the Board of Education’s new transgender model policies, I found nearly everything mandated flies in the face of traditional American and Judeo-Christian values,” Collick said. “The unelected bureaucrats on the Board of Education actually mandated that if parents who are aware do not approve of their child’s desire to identify as, or use a name associated with the opposite sex, the school division will decide whether or not to respect the parents’ right or let the child veto the parents’ decisions. … This is self-destructive to so many children, many of whom need years of counseling after they’ve grown out of this phase, not to mention the distrust it sows between parents and their children, as well as between the parents and the education system.”

Collick isn’t the only one who believes the new transgender policies violate religious freedoms.

Focus on the Family, an American fundamentalist Christian organization founded in 1977, states its goal is to “help Christians courageously and lovingly speak God’s truth” about gender identity and sexual orientation issues in a “confused and needy world.”

“The transgender movement — referred to as the “T” in LGBT — has gained widespread acceptance and force, as gender activists have pushed to add ‘gender identity’ into federal, state and local nondiscrimination laws,” states Jeff Johnson, the group’s issues analyst, in a PDF document that includes definitions of terms such as “gender identity,” “gender expression,” “gender dysphoria,” “sexual orientation,” “transgender” and “intersexuality.”

“The goal: Elevate transgenderism to the same protected status as our unalienable rights, such as freedoms of religion and speech. Some transgender activists and their allies even believe gender identity should usurp religion and speech,” he states. “… ‘I’m a woman in a man’s body’ is just one example of the effect of sin in our world. The errors taught by transgender activists, and believed by many today, are likewise a result of sin and deception entering into the world. The good news is that God made a way to deliver us from sin, through His Son, Jesus Christ!”

“As a child, I prayed repeatedly for God to make me into a boy and became obsessed with my pursuit,” the PDF quotes from Linda Seiler’s book, “Transsexuality Transformed.” ““I’m grateful for all the pastors, counselors, faithful friends, and especially my supportive parents who walked with me during the healing process. The 11-year journey towards transformation was totally worth it.”

Zain Welsh, a colleague of Butler’s at the LGBT Life Center, says it’s rare for individuals to change their minds once they’ve come out as transgender.

“Most who identify as transgender do not grow out of it, they grew into the person they always saw,” he said. “They may not have come out transgender at first, but it takes self-exploring and for some, to learn of a transgender person, to make those connections and the decision to transition.”

Collick’s belief that children who identify as transgender will eventually outgrow it is repeated in a letter the Founding Freedoms Law Center — the legal arm of a faith-based conservative group known as The Family Foundation — addressed to school superintendents and school board members across Virginia. The letter states the group has filed a lawsuit in the city of Lynchburg’s Circuit Court against the VDOE, challenging the model transgender policies.

“We maintain our concerns that these guidelines erase basic parental rights and protection of bodily privacy and safety rights for even our youngest students,” said Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation, in a statement provided to the Associated Press.

The School Board has called a special July 28 meeting to further discuss the proposed policy changes, which will be held in the boardroom of the Isle of Wight County courthouse complex at 9:30 a.m. As it is a work session, and not a regular meeting, there will be no public comment period, according to division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

Thornton maintains Isle of Wight County Schools can comply with the state law by tweaking several existing policies — in some cases simply by adding a sentence that references Virginia Code 22.1-23.3, which is the section of the state code added in 2020 that mandates schools adopt transgender nondiscrimination policies. Thornton is not recommending the school division adopt the state’s model policies verbatim, and he’d previously spoken at a May 19 citizens group meeting in opposition to the state’s recommendation that parents not be told if their child has come out as transgender.

“We disagree with that,” he’d said, also taking issue with the state’s proposed dress code language, which states that “genitals, buttocks and nipples” must be covered.

“I’m not putting that in the student handbook; I’m going to put the dress code we’ve always had, that a skirt is only so long and stuff that we’ve done in the past,” Thornton said.

According to Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the VDOE, local school boards that choose an option other than adopting the state model policies verbatim are responsible for ensuring that they’re still meeting the requirements of the state legislation.

“As in any matter involving new state-required local policies, the Virginia Department of Education provides technical assistance to support local policy development. Local school boards also consult with counsel regarding meeting their obligations under state law.”

But Pyle didn’t specify who, if anyone, would have the final say as to whether said local policies were or were not in compliance, stating only, “It is the responsibility of the local school board to comply.”

Isle of Wight’s transgender policy revisions are slated for adoption in August.