By Chris Croll
When public school teachers in the Commonwealth of Virginia refuse to honor a student’s asserted name and pronouns because it conflicts with that teacher’s religious beliefs, they are breaking the law and, soon, they will be violating the terms of their employment.
In 1962, the United States Supreme Court bannedschool-sponsoredprayerinpublic schools. This means no public-school teacher, of any faith, is permitted to espouse their religious beliefs to students during school hours. This separation of church and state is important for a variety of reasons, including the fact that public schools across America are attended by students of varying faiths, and those who observe no religion at all.When teachers cite their religious beliefs as a reason for treating some students differently in the classroom, they are, in fact, espousing their religious beliefs to those students. This is against the law.
A decade later, in 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments addedprotection for public school students from discrimination based on sex in programs or activities that receive federal funding. InMarch 2021, President Joseph Biden extended Title IX protections, via anexecutive order, so that, “All students should be guaranteed an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, which encompasses sexual violence, and including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”A teacher who treats transgender students differently than other students is practicing discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. That is against the law.
In 2019, Loudoun County Public Schools adopted an amended Policy 1040 which prohibits discrimination based on, “Race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, disability, age, or genetic information.” In January 2020, Policy 1040 was amended again to include language that asserts, “Demeaning or otherwise harmful actions are prohibited, particularly if directed at personal characteristics, including, but not limited to socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
When teachers sign on to work for LCPS, they must agree to follow all School Board policies, or they risk termination.
The Virginia Department of Education is extending protections for transgender and non-binary students even further. Last month, the VDOE issued a mandate that all public-school divisions in the commonwealth must codify specific protections for these students as policy before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. LCPS is introducing its response to this mandate next week with Policy 8040 – Rights of Transgender and Gender Expansive Students. Once adopted, Policy 8040 obligates teachers to call students by their asserted name and pronouns, among other protections.
Again, any LCPS employee who does not follow this policy, or any other LCPS policy or any federal/state law, can and should be fired.
Why do transgender and non-binary students need so much protection? Aside from it being human decency to respect a person’s identity, research shows these kids are at much higher risk for mental health issues. How they are treated by the adults in their lives plays a big part in that health. The way adults treat these kids in schools is a model for how they will be treated by their classmates.
According to a May 2021 report from The Trevor Project, more than half of transgender and non-binary youthin the U.S. seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 3% of adolescents and teens in the United States today identify as transgender or non-binary. Statistically, this means more than1,250 transgender and non-binary students who attend Loudoun County Public Schools have seriously considered killing themselves this past year. It’s no wonder our school counselors and local mental health professionals are so busy.
LCPS policies, like 8040, are protective.The Journal of Adolescent Health, as well as many other reputable organizations, has published research that indicates that if a transgender child’s pronouns and names are respected, the risk of them dying by suicide is dramatically reduced; in some cases, the risk is cut in half.
Put simply, respecting a student’s identity could mean life or death for that child.Therefore, it is hard to understand why anyone would resist Policy 8040 or any other policies that are designed to keep Loudoun’s kids safe. It is particularly hard to understand doing so on religious grounds when most organized religions practiced in this country explicitly call for the protection of the innocent.
If morality alone is not enough of a reason to respect a child’s wishes on what they wish to be called in school, LCPS employees now have a new reason to show transgender and non-binary kids the respect they deserve: Their jobs depend on it.
Chris Croll is a writer, empathy activist and communications consultant. She sits on the Board of the Ryan Bartel Foundation, a youth suicide prevention nonprofit. Croll lives in Leesburg with her husband and two teenage boys.