By Jill L. Weiss, Leesburg
On Dec. 13, the LCPS School Board once again refused to vote on motions to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its anti-discrimination and harassment policies. In November, when the board tabled the vote so it could seek legal counsel on the issue, the reason was plausible. However, in December, when members used this same justification to table the vote a second time, it was clear they were just using it as an excuse to further delay (and possibly avoid) the vote. Why do I say this? Because they had all the legal information they needed to vote at the December meeting, yet they once again refused to do it.
There were two legal questions relevant to the proposed motions. The first was whether the School Board has the legal authority to add the classes of gender identity and sexual orientation to their anti-discrimination and harassment policies. Seeking legal advice on this issue would have been a legitimate reason to table the December vote if not for the fact that the board was provided the answer to this question back in November. In November, when Vice Chairman Brenda Sheridan made the motion to add these classes, she informed the board that she had consulted with members of the Virginia legislature and had confirmed that the board had the authority to add these groups. Board Member Joy Maloney had also researched the issue and informed the board that Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, had written an opinion letter on this specific topic. In the letter, he stated that “school boards have authority to amend their antidiscrimination policies to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity.” This explicit, written opinion of Virginia’s Attorney General should have quelled any legal concerns the School Board had about their authority to add these classes yet they claimed they needed more legal advice and tabled the motion to the December meeting.
At the December meeting, after having a month to obtain legal advice; having full knowledge of the Attorney General’s letter; and knowing, as board Member Tom Marshal stated that night, that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors added these same protected classes to their anti-discrimination policies in 2010 without any legal repercussions, the majority of the board still claimed to be unprepared to vote. They claimed they needed more legal advice and once again tabled the motions. There is no credible explanation for their actions at the December meeting.
The second legal issue was whether the board could remove the names of all protected classes from their discrimination and harassment policies (as an alternative to adding the two proposed classes). When this was first proposed at the November meeting, none of the board members knew if it would be legally permissible to do this so they wisely tabled the motion to the December meeting so they could seek legal guidance.
At the December meeting, I told the board that several federal laws have explicit notice provisions which require schools to include names of protected classes in their policies. I also gave them copies of a U.S. DOE document which clearly explains why removing the names of all protected classes would place LCPS in violation of federal law. Later that night, board member Joy Maloney reminded the other board members that their own attorney, Stephen DeVita, had told them the same thing. At that point, I expected the board to say this option would no longer be considered. That didn’t happen. The majority of board members still felt they needed more legal advice on this proposal so they delayed the vote again.
Equally, and perhaps even more stunning than their refusal to vote on the motions were statements made by some board members to justify the further delay of this vote. Earlier in the evening, more than 20 speakers shared heartbreaking stories about people who had been physically and verbally assaulted, harassed, discriminated against and even driven to attempt suicide because of the way they were treated at LCPS due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. The board was also informed by several speakers about the disproportionally high rate of suicide among people in the proposed protected classes. Despite hearing these speakers, while explaining why they were tabling these motions for a second time, Chairman Eric Hornberger repeatedly said there was “no rush” to vote on these issues. Board member Debbie Rose (whose biography on the LCPS School Board webpage states she is an attorney) stated that among other reasons for her not being prepared to vote was that “…it’s the holidays and there’s a lot going on” (implying that board members should be excused from doing their due diligence on an issue as crucial as this for the six weeks prior to winter break?). To the brave individuals who stood up that night to share their stories in hopes of gaining protection from LCPS for their loved ones, the comments made by Mr. Hornberger and Ms. Rose were belittling and unconscionable.
The LCPS School Board had all the legal information they needed to vote on these motions at the December meeting. What they lacked was the courage. The LCPS community deserves better. Although the next School Board meeting is Jan. 10, the Chairman stated that these motions will not be considered “action items” on the January agenda until he polls the board to ensure they have had sufficient time to get legal advice on these matters. Consequently, there is no guarantee that the board will even address these issues next month.
I urge the School Board to step up and do its job; to stop hiding behind excuses; and to protect students and staff from any further discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This action is long overdue and this community cannot afford to wait any longer.