The Virginia Department of Education posted a new draft of model policies to replace the Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students. The draft policies published Friday include an emphasis on parental rights as a major shift away from a current emphasis on protecting students’ gender identity from people, including family, who may not be understanding.
The first point under the Guiding Principles section of the draft states, “Parents have the right to make decisions with respect to their children: Policies shall be drafted to safeguard parents’ rights with respect to their child, and to facilitate the exercise of those rights.”
That point includes the most explanation with three subpoints: “Schools shall respect parents’ values and beliefs,” “Schools shall defer to parents to make the best decisions with respect to their children,” and “Schools shall keep parents informed about their children’s well-being“.
Briefer explanations accompany the remaining three guiding principles: “Schools shall serve the needs of all students,” “Schools shall partner with parents,” and “Schools shall respect all students.”
The VDOE, Governor Glenn Youngkin, and other top administration officials didn’t issue press releases about the policy published to a VDOE page on Friday. Virginia Department of Education Director of Communications Charles Pyle said VDOE will make an announcement later this month when the public comment process begins.
“Following the review of public comments and any resulting edits, the model policy document will become final,” Pyle said.
The “Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools” will withdraw the current model policies.
History of the Model Policies
In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring VDOE to create model policies for the treatment of transgender students; school districts are required to pass their own policies consistent with the model policies. As a result the law now requires the model policies to address issues including “Compliance with applicable nondiscrimination laws;” “Maintenance of a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment for all students;” “Prevention of and response to bullying and harassment;” “Protection of student privacy and the confidentiality of sensitive information;” and “Enforcement of sex-based dress codes.”
In 2021, the Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students were finalized. The policies included requirements that school staff use students’ preferred pronouns; eliminate segregating students by gender where possible; and warned of the need to protect transgender students’ privacy.
“Additionally, privacy and confidentiality are critical for transgender students who do not have supportive families. Disclosing a student’s gender identity can pose imminent safety risks, such as losing family support or housing,” the policies state.
The policies also addressed bathrooms: “Students should be allowed to use the facility that corresponds to their gender identity. While some transgender students will want that access, others may want alternatives that afford more privacy. Taking into account existing school facilities, administrators should take steps to designate gender-inclusive or single-user restrooms commensurate with the size of the school.”
Conservative legal organizations promptly targeted those policies with a series of lawsuits. School boards differed in their response to the policies; while some school boards enthusiastically embraced the model policies, others delayed introducing their own policies or introduced policies with questionable compliance.
“Out of Virginia’s 133 school districts, 13 school boards have fully adopted VDOE’s model policies, eight have partially adopted the model policies, 90 have opted to follow guidance put forward by the Virginia School Boards Association that contends existing policies fulfill the law’s requirements, nine school districts have rejected the VDOE policies, and four didn’t consider any policy, claiming their current policies are sufficient,” Equality Virginia reported in a Thursday press release.
With little enforcement mechanism attached to the statutes, disputes over school board policies have played out in public comment period and in lawsuits.
Additionally, Virginia Republicans campaigned on expanding parental rights in schools, part of a broader emphasis on issues including Critical Race Theory, mask mandates, virtual learning, and library books. Thanks in part to that campaign strategy, Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration took control of the VDOE, and Republicans took the House of Delegates.
Senator Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell) introduced legislation to repeal state law requiring the model policies, but the bill was killed in the Democrat-controlled Senate Education and Health committee.
Bathrooms and Preferred Pronouns
The new draft includes specific sections responding to each requirement in Virginia code, including policies about sex-specific school activities and use of school facilities.
“Overnight travel accommodations, locker rooms, and other intimate spaces used for school-related activities and events shall be based on sex. [School Division] shall provide reasonable modifications to this policy only to the extent required by federal law,” one section states. “Students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”
“Single-user bathrooms and facilities should be made available in accessible areas and provided with appropriate signage, indicating accessibility for all students,” the section adds.
Under Guiding Principles section “Schools shall serve the needs of all students,” the draft states, “Schools should attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex. A team of appropriate school
staff and other caregivers should collaborate with the parents to identify and implement reasonable accommodations or modifications, taking into account the resources and staff available in the school and school divisions, as well as the rights and needs of other students and of school staff.”
The draft would require school personnel to only use names or nicknames that appear in the student’s official record, which could be changed for students under age 18 only if the parent presents a legal document, like a birth certificate or government identification. Parents could also instruct the school in writing to use another name or pronouns.
“[School Division] personnel shall refer to each student using only the pronouns appropriate to the sex appearing in the student’s official record – that is, male pronouns for a student whose legal sex is male, and female pronouns for a student whose legal sex is female,” the draft states.
The muted Friday release of the draft didn’t receive a lot of initial response. Candidate for the House of Delegates 59th District Rachel Levy tweeted that the new draft policies are “awful” and “anti-children.” She highlighted her concerns including removing references to nonbinary people, and narrow definitions of “transgender” and “sex.”
“Third, it treats the existence of transgender people not as a fact but as an “ideology” and implies that Virginia K-12 public school educators who respect transgender students’ stated gender identity are promoting “ideology,” she tweeted.
“Next, according to this policy, parents’ rights ALWAYS supersede children’s & students’ rights–the child has no agency. In particular, it is not up to the child who they are; it is up to the parent,” she tweeted.
The Virginia Family Foundation, a conservative lobbying organization that was one of the first to sue over the current model policies, praised the new draft.
“We are thrilled to see Governor Youngkin leading our schools toward respecting the privacy and dignity of all students and the preeminent role of parents in the lives of their children,” Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb said in a Friday press release. “We are thankful Governor Youngkin has heard the pleas of Virginians from across the Commonwealth to be included in the lives and education of their children. The Governor’s new policies are a substantial improvement that also supports teachers, who were being placed in the uncomfortable position of being asked to withhold information from parents.”
The release concluded, “Under the new policy, parents in more than 100 counties will once again have their rights respected, as the policies their school boards adopted will automatically be reversed to include parents in the discussion. We call on the other counties to begin dismantling the policies they set in place under the old guidelines.”
– – –