By Attorney General Mark R. Herring
Every Virginian has the right to live, learn, and work without fear of discrimination, harassment, bullying or mistreatment. No one should suffer because of who they are, where they come from, how they worship, or whom they love, and no child should fear for his or her safety or dread getting out of bed because of bullying at their school. These are Virginia values that I learned growing up in Loudoun.
My family and I still make our home in Leesburg. I’m a product of Loudoun County Public Schools, my wife is proud to work in one, and our two children had amazing experiences and got great educations in Loudoun schools. That’s why I have followed our School Board’s ongoing debate on non-discrimination policies, particularly whether LGBT students and teachers should be protected from bullying and discrimination.
I have been really heartened to see the coalition that has come together to support this commonsense step. Unfortunately, a small but vocal contingent led largely by people from outside Loudoun is trying to stand in the way of what is really a non-controversial statement of our community’s longstanding commitment to equality.
As is often the case, those who oppose equal treatment for the LGBT community have tried to hide behind arguments about process because they don’t want to be the adults who say out loud that it is just fine for certain children to be singled out, bullied, or made to feel ashamed of themselves in a place that should be a safe and supportive environment for learning and development.
As part of their efforts to distract from the substance of the debate, opponents of equality have questioned the authority of the School Board to even enact these non-discrimination policies and tried to cast doubt on an official legal opinion I issued as Attorney General in 2015. After extensive research and consideration in conjunction with some of the sharpest legal minds in the Commonwealth, I concluded in that opinion that local school boards have the authority to protect their students and teachers from discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Even before this official advisory legal opinion, several school boards had already enacted such policies. Following issuance of the opinion, many more added LGBT protections and these protections are now included in the model code of conduct used by many cities and counties. I have heard of precisely zero problems or concerns with protecting LGBT students and teachers in non-discrimination policies, and no one seems eager to reverse course.
This debate has real consequences for the quality of our schools and the experience of all our students. The Centers for Disease Control has found that LGBT students have been more likely to experience bullying or harassment in school, which coincides with increased likelihood of substance abuse, self-harm or even suicide as a result of the pain and stress. But the CDC also found that “going to a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents…helps all youth achieve good grades and maintain good mental and physical health,” not just LGBT students.
When our School Board meets on Tuesday I hope they will carefully consider their authority to act and their responsibility to set the right tone in our schools. In my lifetime, Loudoun has undergone an incredible transformation as we have opened our arms to talented men and women from around the world and judged our friends, neighbors, and coworkers based only on their ability and their character.
With their vote, the Board has an opportunity to ignore all the noise and embrace where their students and this community already are. I hope the Board will send a clear message to students, teachers, and our entire Loudoun community about who we are and the way we value equality and inclusion.
Mark Herring is the 48th Attorney General of Virginia and a resident of Leesburg.