The Albemarle County School Board passed a new policy Thursday evening that gives transgender and gender-expansive students more rights and protections in the school district despite some confusion over when parents would be notified.
State law requires all Virginia school districts to pass ordinances before the start of the upcoming school year that address the “treatment of transgender students” in public schools. Classes are set to begin in Albemarle County next week.
Albemarle’s policy essentially gives students the right to live in school as their identified gender. Teachers and staff must use a student’s preferred name and pronouns. Transgender students may use the bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity. The same goes for sports teams.
The 10-page document also outlines the district’s responsibility to work with transgender students and their parents in creating a plan for how students will transition in school and to quickly address issues of harassment or bullying.
“I think we’ve made two huge decisions for the betterment of the kids here in Albemarle County,” said Board Chair Graham Paige, referring to the transgender policy and another requiring school employees be vaccinated.
Although it passed unanimously, one board member raised concerns about a provision in the policy that allows teachers and staff to keep a student’s gender identity secret from their parents.
“I very much support this policy,” board member David Oberg said. “I don’t want my question to come across as if I’m not supporting it — I do. The one provision that does give me pause is the paragraph that talks about the fact that the parents could be not informed. And it doesn’t seem clear to me when that would take place and who would make that decision.”
The purpose of this portion of the policy is to keep students safe, especially those who fear physical violence or being kicked out of their home if their parents learn about their gender identity, said Ross Holden, the school division’s attorney.
However, the policy for when to do this is vague. It instructs personnel to address such situations on a “case-by-case basis,” with the most important consideration being the “physical and mental health and safety of the student.”
“What we do not want to do is put a child in danger,” Holden said. “If a student consults with a teacher or counselor and says, ‘Hey, I’m going through this. I really want to talk about it but I’m not ready to come out, I’m not ready to tell my family,’ we would like to protect that confidentiality.”
However, the policy also states that the school “may be required by law” to show parents any written plans regarding their child’s transition in school. The policy instructs school staff to make such plans.
What’s more, the policy may not fully cover students who do not have parental consent. “The school may not be able to implement certain aspects of the student’s transitioning plan without parental approval,” the policy reads.
“If the student wants certain concessions, medical or otherwise, we will advise them that we cannot do that until such time as to have parental consent,” Holden said.
Holden did not say which concessions would be denied, and it is not clear in the policy what provisions require parental approval.
“It may sound imperfect, but it’s trying to balance a lot of interests here,” Holden said. “We’re going to try the best we can. This is a new policy, certainly for the ACPS and for the state of Virginia. As we learn more, as we confront issues and we may have amendments we want to bring to the board. But right now, we’re going to count on our staff, our counselors, our nurses to implement this as best as we can.”
The policy’s passing was welcomed by some parents. Earlier in the day, a group of them gathered in front of the Albemarle County Office Building to host a demonstration in support of the policy.
Some chanted and waved rainbow flags and signs while others circled the building in their vehicles honking.
“I have two kids in the school district, and it’s hugely important to me that they experience the same experience that all children should have access to,” said Jude Christian, who attended the demonstration with her daughter, Alice. “So it is hate-free, meaning everyone should have an equal right to an enjoyable school experience. Because it can be so damaging when it is filled with hate.”
“Yeah, it kind of disappoints me that there are so many people in Charlottesville who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community and they’re hated on,” Alice added. “Coming here and seeing all these people supporting everyone, it just makes me really happy.”
Other parents were opposed to the policy. At the Thursday meeting, 13 people made public comments on the policy. Seven were against its implementation.
Several people accused the board of rushing this policy through without attempting to get input from parents.
In one comment, Nicki Athey said that the policy was “not written in policy language” and that it failed to “clearly convey responsibilities and responsible parties.”
In another, Marie Mierzejewski asked the board how it intended to protect children who were uncomfortable sharing bathroom and locker room facilities “with children of the opposite biological sex.”
The policy acknowledges that some students “may feel uncomfortable with gender-expansive students using the same sex-specific facility” but “that discomfort is not a reason to deny access to the gender-expansive student.” It added that any student who expressed discomfort would “be provided with a designated safe, non-stigmatizing alternative.”