The Loudoun County School Board voted Jan. 14 to incorporate the words “gender expression” into Loudoun County Public Schools policy, the latest in a recent series of changes to school system regulations seeking to enhance equity for students and staff who are part of the LGBT community.
Two options for changes to LCPS Policy 1040, “Equal Opportunity for Equitable, Safe and Inclusive Environment,” were presented to the board on Jan. 14 when it reconvened its meeting from two days prior, which was recessed due to time constraints.
The board narrowly passed the previous version of Policy 1040 — with its acknowledgement of sexual orientation and gender identity proving particularly controversial — in February 2019. Ten months later, the board added language to the LCPS “Equal Opportunity Employment” policy barring discrimination against prospective hires “on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or veteran status.”
Both versions of the draft policy presented Jan 14 added gender expression to the existing policy’s list of characteristics that are not to merit “[d]emeaning or otherwise harmful actions,” which, along with sexual orientation and gender identity, currently includes socioeconomic status. Option A included an additional paragraph mandating school staff to address students by their chosen gender pronouns, either at an adult student’s own request or that of a minor’s parent or guardian.
Almost immediately after reconvening the meeting, Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) moved to adopt Option B, which merely adds gender expression to the existing policy without the added stipulations granted in Option A. She cited prior concerns from fellow board members regarding the highly specific language in Option A as a factor in her decision, as well as consultations with members of the LGBT community in LCPS.
“[They] believe the use of pronouns and names that correspond with gender identity would be included by adding ‘gender expression,’” she said. “I also met with staff to ensure the inclusion of ‘gender expression’ would indeed enable students to be addressed by the name and pronouns that they identify [with].”
The chairwoman further explained the difference between the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression,” quoting a recent draft policy from the Virginia Department of Education. While the former is “a person’s internal sense of their own identity as a boy/man, girl/woman, something in between or outside the male-female binary,” the latter is “the manner in which a person represents or expresses their gender identity or role to others, often through appearance, clothing, hairstyles, behavior, activities, voice or mannerisms.”
While speaking to her base motion, Sheridan addressed previous concerns from her colleagues — particularly Jeff Morse (Dulles District) — that the new policy would make a student’s gender expression a primarily school-handled matter and that school counselors would be hesitant to notify parents. With backup from LCPS Interim Chief of Staff Mark Smith, she argued that, while some students might be initially reluctant or even afraid to broach the topic of gender identity with their parents, school counselors should be expected to encourage students to eventually bring such matters to their families.
“There is no intent to leave parents out of this; in fact, the support of parents in the family unit is key to the overall mental health of our students,” Sheridan said. “The support of a school counselor or a trusted adult is often the first step our students take in finding support — all of our students, I hope, but particularly those of the LGBT community.”
Smith added that counselors are only obligated to report information offered by a student if that information suggests harm may befall that student or someone else, or that a potential crime will be committed. He also argued — as did Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District) — that the mere addition of the words “gender identity” to school policy would not yield changes in how school counselors or other staff already handle such matters.
Morse, however, remained adamant that adopting the draft policy would lead the school system “down a tremendously slippery slope and a legally questionable slope as well.”
“What I’m hearing is that school officials can make a determination that a home environment — based on what a child is telling them — is one way, without hearing a parental notification or input from the parent,” he said. “You’re hearing a one-sided discussion from an adolescent who is emotionally in turmoil in the situation.”
While he opined a child “has the right to be called specifically as they wish” in the school environment, Morse expressed concern over the idea that the draft policy might encourage students coming to terms with their gender identity and expression to essentially live a double-life.
“Taking a child’s perspective and not even notifying the parents, because the child may be very concerned, suddenly the school has stepped in between a parent and a child,” he said.
“You’ve created two different environments: one in which a child at school can be one persona, but they have to hide that persona when they get home because the parents haven’t even been notified, and the child is fearful of what may come out of that.”
Sheridan reiterated her belief that school counselors would work with students to build up the courage to address gender-related issues with their families, suggesting such an approach is better than “just that cold phone call.”
She concluded, “The key part to the mental health of the student who is struggling with this is to have the family unit’s support, and that is the ultimate goal.”
Ultimately, Sheridan’s motion passed 7-2, with Morse and John Beatty (Catoctin District) opposed.Thursday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting is available to view in full at vimeo.com/500863511.