In a split vote Tuesday night, the Loudoun County School Board declined to add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the protected characteristics listed in its equal employment policy.
Instead, the board unanimously voted to add a paragraph to the policy that states the school system hires employees based on merit and excellence. It also states that the board “recognizes and values the diversity of the students and broader community it serves and encourages diversity within its workforce.”
The School Board had twice delayed voting on the proposal policy in the wake of concerns raised by critics.
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) offered the compromise. He said the new paragraph was intended to go beyond the requirements of state and federal law to highlight the school system’s values. “This is an opportunity to say more … that we hire because of merit because we want the best people working in our schools,” he said.
Four of the School Board members—Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), Beth Huck (At Large), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and Joy Maloney (Broad Run)—settled for adding the paragraph, but said they preferred to specifically spell out in policy that employees and applicants will not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sheridan, who initially made the amendment to add the protective language to policy, said she knows of several LGBTQ teachers who feel they cannot put a picture of their spouse on their desk or bring their spouse to a work holiday party because they fear that their jobs could be at risk.
“Those are real stories in our school system,” she said. “I see you, I hear you, I speak for you. I may not have a majority with me tonight, but I will continue to use my voice and my position to stand with you.”
She also noted that the county board added the language to its employee policy seven years ago, saying, “I can’t believe we’re seven years behind the Board of Supervisors.”
Several board members said they received “nasty” and “hateful” emails, from people on both sides of the debate. Beth Huck (At Large) said those proved to her that the board should do all it can to specifically protect members of the LGBT community.
In response to Bible verses that were read by several speakers ahead of the vote by those opposed to the LGBT protection language, Huck asked that they consider what their underlying faith teaches them. “My faith teaches me to love and that judgment is not mine,” she said.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), Eric DeKenipp (Catcotin) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who opposed the proposed policy change, said the board should wait for more clear direction from the state and supreme courts, which are both considering cases related to sexual orientation protections and rights. “It’s not the School Board’s role to identify our protected classes. It’s not our job,” DeKenipp said.
More than two dozen speakers addressed the board ahead of the vote. A similar number of people spoke in favor of adding the language and excluding it.
Charlotte McConnell, one of about a dozen people who spoke in support of specifying gender identity in the anti-discrimination policy, said that transgender people are more likely to face harassment on the job. “We are living in uncertain times. I think it’s time we all stand up and show that we appreciate them and we will protect them,” she said.
Bethany Kozma, of Fairfax County, where the School Board recently adopted similar language, said the change in policy could lead to a slippery slope that ultimately allows a male gym teacher who identifies as a woman to shower in the girls’ locker room with students. “You could potentially be opening your students up to sexual harassment,” she said.
The School Board also got the 2 cents of Loudoun County native and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D). Ahead of Tuesday’s decision, he wrote a letter urging them to add the specific language to policy to protect all of its employees and students, following an official legal opinion he wrote in 2015 about school boards’ authority to enact non-discrimination policies.
“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,” he wrote.
Still, Will Estrada, chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, warned School Board members Tuesday night that they may face legal challenges if they add “sexual orientation, gender identity” anti-discrimination wording to its policy. Fairfax County Public Schools’ adoption of a similar policy is being challenged in court.
“What this is is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “There is no evidence that Loudoun teachers, principals, and staff are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.”
Connie Rice, a transgender woman who lives in Leesburg, told the board that transgender people should not be seen as the predators but vulnerable individuals in need of protection. “They are the most attacked people group. There are no cases of transgender people attacking people in bathrooms,” she said. “What’s the problem here? Is it just our mere presence or our mere appearance? Because that is the definition of discrimination.”