IW School Board reviewing state’s new model transgender policies

Published 1:55 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s School Board is reviewing new model transgender student policies the Virginia Department of Education released on July 18 to determine whether changes are needed locally.

Former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed legislation in 2020 requiring school boards to adopt policies “consistent with” or “more comprehensive than” model policies the VDOE released in 2021.

The 2023 policy document the VDOE developed under Northam’s Republican successor, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, rolls back many of the 2021 provisions, asserting them to have “promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools” that “disregarded the rights of parents.”

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The 2023 model policies mandate schools “defer to parents” in determining what names or pronouns their children use at school and “whether their child expresses a gender that differs” from the sex listed on the student’s official school records.

The 2021 policies, which the VDOE contends “have no further force and effect,” asserted that “if a student is not ready or able to safely share with their family about their gender identity, this should be respected.” The 2023 version explicitly asserts “no policy” may “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from a student’s parent, including information related to gender.”

The 2021 document had further characterized the “intentional and persistent refusal” of school employees to use a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns as “discriminatory.” The 2023 version states that schools “shall not compel” personnel or other students to “address or refer to students in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

“Practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice. … Many Virginians reject this belief,” the 2023 document states, asserting that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “prohibits compelling others to affirm ideas that may be contrary to their personal religious beliefs.”

Isle of Wight’s School Board, in 2021, voted to tweak the language of existing nondiscrimination policies to include a legal reference to the 2020 state law rather than adopt the 2021 model policies verbatim.

School Board Chairman John Collick, who campaigned for his seat on opposition to the 2021 transgender policies, said he’s reviewing the 2023 version.

“I am confident that, if policy changes are needed, the School Board will come together to ensure that they recognize the rights of every student, parent and teacher while meeting the criteria set forth by the VDOE,” Collick said.

Vice Chairman Jason Maresh said he too is reviewing the 2023 version.

“The 2023 model policies issued by the VDOE must, at a minimum, be adopted as written however Boards can be more comprehensive,” said board member Mark Wooster.

Board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham did not respond to The Smithfield Times’ email inquiry about whether they anticipate policy changes stemming from the 2023 document.

The 2021 policy document had established the start of the 2021-22 school year as the deadline for complying with the 2020 law, though a new deadline is not specified in the 2023 version. The 2023 version, however, notes the 2020 law’s requirement that boards adopt policies consistent with or more comprehensive than the VDOE’s policies remains in effect, even though the wording of the model policies has now changed.

According to Equality Virginia, an LGBT advocacy organization, only 13 school divisions fully adopted the 2021 model policies and another 90, among them Isle of Wight, had followed the Virginia School Boards Association’s advice and tweaked existing policies to reference the 2020 law.

Greg Brown, an Isle of Wight County parent, urged the board at its Aug. 10 meeting not to adopt the 2023 language.

“At a certain point kids grow up; they get to make their own decisions, and I mean, that’s hoping they get to grow up since LGBTQ kids are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide,” Brown said during the meeting’s public comment period.

The statistic is published on the website for The Trevor Project, an LGBT advocacy organization focused on suicide prevention. No other speakers at the Aug. 10 meeting referenced the transgender policies.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:44 p.m. on Aug. 16 with a statement from Mark Wooster.