Equity & Diversity

Fight Over Transgender Student Policies Moves to Virginia’s School Boards

By Matt Jones, Daily Press — July 29, 2021 3 min read
The entrance to the boy's and girl's restrooms at Gloucester High School in on Nov. 15, 2016.
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A judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday that sought to challenge a set of state guidelines meant to protect Virginia’s transgender students.

In a six-page opinion, Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge J. Frederick Watson questioned whether the groups that filed the lawsuit would actually be impacted by the state’s suggested policies.

The dismissal clears one statewide hurdle for the guidelines and limits future challenges. But it leaves the fight to continue at local school boards, which are currently debating how or if to implement policies before the start of the school year.

“This is a win and we should celebrate it for the win that it is,” said Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, an advocacy group focused on LGBTQ rights. “The work continues. We are still continuing to have these conversations because of the spread of misinformation that is out there.”

The Founding Freedoms Law Center and Christian Action Network filed separate lawsuits against the Virginia Department of Education in March after the state came up with its guidelines. The two cases were consolidated into a single lawsuit in Lynchburg Circuit Court.

The policies focus on protecting and affirming trans children, calling on schools to do things like respect their name, gender, and pronouns and to let children use restrooms that match their gender. Children whose gender doesn’t match the one they were assigned at birth often face discrimination and harassment, impacting their ability to succeed in school.

Kalpana Kotagal, an attorney from the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Cohen Milstein, filed a brief supporting the policies on behalf of Equality Virginia and over 50 other organizations.

“While it may at first blush kind of seem like a technical ruling, it remains a recognition or an upholding of those model policies promulgated by the Department of Education,” Kotagal said. “I think that’s a win.”

While some school boards, like Portsmouth’s, have passed the model policies without issue, others have rejected them or delayed decisions. Chesapeake’s policy was up for a final vote Monday, having previously passed on first reading, but at the last minute, the board delayed voting.

See Also

Gavin Grimm, who has become a national face for transgender students, speaks during a news conference held by The ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia at Slover Library in Norfolk, Va on July 23, 2019.
As a high school student, Virginia teenager Gavin Grimm challenged his school district's policy limiting which restrooms may be used by transgender students.
Kristen Zeis/The Daily Press via AP

During nearly three hours of public comment, many speakers said they opposed the policy, asking the board to “hold the line,” the tagline of a newly formed interest group called Chesapeake Parents for Freedom. James Davids, an attorney from the FFLC, urged the board to do what at least one other board in the state has done and reject it.

Watson’s opinion in the lawsuit focused on the fact that the model policies are only guidelines for school boards. Because of that, only school boards can challenge them.

He also questioned the groups’ attempts to claim they had standing to sue as taxpayers, since there’s no money involved. The suit’s dismissal puts a stop to the groups’ request that Watson block the policies.

The FFLC called the decision a “disappointing development” in a statement posted on its website Wednesday but noted a couple of outcomes they found favorable.

One was Watson calling the model policies guidance. A state law passed in 2020 requires school boards to pass policies in line with model policies from the Virginia Department of Education, but it doesn’t include any enforcement measures.

At a court hearing last week, attorneys for the state said Virginia wouldn’t try to cut funding to schools that don’t adopt policies. The FFLC said it will continue to push boards to ignore the policies and highlighted its “#ProtectEveryKid” campaign, which includes social media memes and resources to fight a “radicalized form of transgender advocacy.”

The FFLC statement noted the judge didn’t consider any of their legal or constitutional arguments and said they’d fight “certain individual board policies” in coming weeks if they follow the state guidelines.

Trans rights advocates say that resistance to change hurts trans kids, and helping them feel included won’t have any negative effects on their peers.

Because of that, Kotagal said, it’s important to center policy debates on trans students.

“I think the evidence is pretty clear that’s where the harm is,” Kotagal said. “These model policies are really important to protect against that.”

Copyright (c) 2021, Daily Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

Daily Press staff writer Sara Gregory contributed to this story.

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