After an outpouring of public comment and a lengthy discussion, the Loudoun County School Board approved a policy in a 5-4 vote that would affirm the equal opportunity for an equitable, safe and inclusive environment for students and staff of all legally protected classes and on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity Tuesday night.
The narrowly approved policy serves as an aspirational statement meant to inform Loudoun County Public Schools intentions.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) moved to adopt the general equal opportunity statement. Sheridan thanked members of the public who spoke before the board during public comment, particularly students. She also reiterated that she is an ally to the LGBTQ community.
“From the emails received and some of the speakers this evening and in previous times and two years ago and since then, it is very obvious why our LGBTQ community needs these protections in place of our school division,” Sheridan said.
Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting in favor of the proposed language spoke of passing up jobs in LCPS because they felt they could not be open about the gender identity, how policies make students feel accepted and can help reduce mental health risks in the LGBTQ community, and that such policies send strong statements against LGBTQ bullying, harassment and assault.
Supporters included faith leaders, students, parents and alumni. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.-10th) also released a statement in support of the policy, saying everyone, regardless of who they love or how they identify, deserves to feel safe in school.
Sheridan shared that she saw a video by Prince William County School board Vice Chairman Justin Wilk, who called the 45 largest school divisions with LGBTQ inclusive language — which covers a combined 3.6 million students — and asked how many trans kids have attacked or been attacked in restrooms since the language was adopted and how many instances the divisions had of cisgender heterosexual boys dressing up as girls to gain access to girls’s spaces. The answer to both questions across all divisions was zero, Sheridan said.
But still, the question of privacy and safety — primarily of cisgender female students — was a large concern for opponents of the proposed language. In addition to parents who raised concerns about the proposed language allowing for transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity and therefore making cisgender students feel uncomfortable while changing, some parents also questioned the board’s legal authority to add protective classes and if the policy would negatively affect teachers of faith from acting in alignment with their beliefs.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian District) attempted to balance the need for protections for LGBTQ students and the need to respect privacy of other student groups with a substitute motion removing gender identity from the list of protective classes and adding a paragraph prohibiting demeaning or harmful behavior directed at personal characteristics, including, but not limited to socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rose said the substitute motion would not affect current LCPS bathroom policy regarding transgender students, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis. According to LCPS staff, students may use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity if they have gone through the process to have the gender marker on their birth certificate changed.
“This practice is working well and should be continued. The question of rights is always about finding a balance,” Rose said. “...This substitute confirms a commitment to the LGBT students and staff by including sexual orientation specifically, and making a strong affirmative statement that demeaning and harmful actions based on personal characteristics such as gender identity are not tolerated.”
Rose also said that though sexual orientation is not a federally protected class, it is expected to become one soon. The anti-bullying policy already prohibits demeaning and harmful actions based on personal characteristics, so adding gender identity to that list is consistent with LCPS policy, she said.
Chris Croll (Catoctin District) moved to amend Rose’s substitute motion to include gender identity in the list of protective classes and remove the proposed paragraph on prohibiting demeaning or harmful behavior based on personal characteristics.
“As we have read and heard and discussed in our community, this isn’t just about gay rights, this is about transgender rights as well, and it’s important we protect that community,” Croll said.
Sheridan moved to divide the motion to have board members vote on whether to add gender identity to the list of protective classes and then take a separate vote on removing the paragraph prohibiting demeaning and harmful behaviors.
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn District) said he wouldn’t support adding gender identity to the first section of the policy because of a lack of clarity from federal and state law and court decisions, whereas sexual orientation has had more definitive legislation supporting discrimination protections.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge District) urged caution at including gender identity because of how it could affect other students, saying the board’s primary concern is to make sure all student needs are met.
Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles District) said he also supported including sexual orientation to the policy but not gender identity.
He said upon speaking to students in a Gay Straight Alliance club at John Champe High School he learned their chief concerns were being able to have the name of their choice in the yearbook, having easier access to individual bathrooms and bullying. He said the proposed policy goes beyond the concerns of actual LGBTQ students.
Rose and Turgeon both expressed interest in reviewing bullying policies to make sure they are as effective as possible.
Beth Huck (At-Large) supported adding gender identity to the policy, again citing the video by Prince William County School Board Member Wilk, as well as FBI data that states 20 percent of hate crimes are against LGBTQ people and that no school system in Virginia with LGBTQ inclusive policies is facing any litigation.
Joy Maloney (Broad Run District) also supported adding gender identity to the policy, and with data indicating the lack of a policies that promote inclusive environments for LGBTQ students contributes to the demographic’s elevated suicide rate, she said she struggled to empathize with board members struggling with the decision.
The board ultimately voted 5-4 to add gender identity to the equal opportunity policy, with Rose, Morse, Hornberger and Turgeon opposed. The board also killed the motion to remove language prohibiting demeaning or harmful behavior.
The language on prohibited behaviors proposed by Rose came from Virginia School Board Association policy, Hornberger said. “There are laws put into place but there are behaviors we also find unacceptable, and I think that’s an important part to put in there,” Hornberger said.
Lastly, Turgeon made a motion to include a paragraph stating the bathroom, locker room and overnight field trip policies would not be changed until the School Board took action.
Rose asked board members to support the motion to allow current policy to stay in place while staff continues to look at how to best accommodate all students.
Sheridan said she would not support the added language, as the current policy is sufficient. Huck also said she would not support the added language, because the board does not approve practices.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg District) and Croll also voiced opposition to Turgeon’s amendment. Croll said she opposed the amendment, but not current practice. She said the amendment was looking for assurance that staff would not change the bathroom, locker room or overnight field trip policy without School Board approval, and she trusted staff not to do that.
Hornberger questioned board members who voiced opposition to the amendment, saying if the board’s position is to keep current policy but won’t put it in writing, that’s concerning. Turgeon echoed his comments, saying that supporting keeping current policy without voting for the amendment feels a little like political posturing.
“It behooves us make sure that we’re clear on what policy does and does not do. I think it’s a service to the community. It’s not stating one side or the other, it simply clarifies what this means moving forward,” Turgeon said.
Turgeon’s amendment failed 4-5 with Maloney, Croll, Huck, Sheridan and Marshall opposed. The amended policy passed 5-4 with Turgeon, Hornberger, Morse and Rose opposed.
The approved policy reads:
“The Loudoun County School Board is committed to providing for an equitable, safe and inclusive learning and working environment.
“The Loudoun County School Board affirms a commitment to this principle for all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, disability, age, or genetic information.
“It is the intent of the School Board of Loudoun County that every policy, practice, and procedure shall reflect this commitment. Behavior that is not unlawful may nevertheless be unacceptable for the educational environment or the workplace. Demeaning or otherwise harmful actions are prohibited, particularly if directed at personal characteristics, including, but not limited to socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”