The School Board is planning to add “gender expression” to the list of characteristics to be protected from demeaning or harmful actions in the division’s educational and work environments.
Questions remain, however, about how that will be implemented on school campuses.
The issue was sent to the School Board from its Equity Committee, which also proposed a proclamation of No Name-Calling Week, a national anti-bullying campaign that runs Jan. 18-22.
“One of the things I love about the Equity Committee is the ability of that committee and the space that we’ve created within that committee to have some really difficult and challenging conversations. This was also an emotional discussion,” said School Board Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), who also chairs the Equity Committee.
Under the recommendation, gender expression would be added to the list of protected characteristics that currently includes socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
While the measure is intended to address concerns about student mental health, including suicide prevention, School Board members are wrestling with how to implement the protection.
A draft policy states that: “All persons have the right to be addressed by the names and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity without any substantiating evidence. School staff shall, at the request of an adult student or parent/guardian, address the student using the asserted name and pronoun. The school principal/designee, in collaboration with the students who are minors and a member of the school Unified Mental Health Team, should meet with the parent/guardian of the student to develop a plan to support the student’s needs related to gender expression requests.”
School leaders are debating whether parents should be notified of—or required to approve—a student’s request to be called by a different name or pronoun. Some board members, and several speakers during the board’s public input session, raised worries about increasing or causing conflicts with families where a student’s identity preference isn’t accepted or isn’t known. Others worried about excluding parents, potentially resulting in students having one identity at home and a different one at school.
Ian Serotkin (Blue Run) proposed sending the issue to a committee for more detailed review, but a majority opposed.
“When we rush, we make bad decisions and we have to get out of the habit of doing that,” Serotkin said. “This is too important to get wrong:”
The policy could come to a vote at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting.
The final version is expected to be shaped by a still-not-finalized model policy on the issue under development by the Virginia Department of Education.
Division Counsel Stephen DeVita said the state leaders appear to be coming down on the side of students, with the school staff focusing on the safety and wellbeing of the students and having some role in helping families find a successful outcome.
“I think we’re locked into whatever VDoE puts in this policy,” he said.