In a time of increased freedom of expression, school divisions have the authority to develop policies to meet the needs of all students, including those in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer) community.
Recently, school divisions and boards in Virginia have been met with challenges regarding LGBTQ students’ rights, such as Stafford County and West Point Public Schools.
One opinion of parents and community members is that school divisions do not have specific enough policies to meet the needs of these students. But local school division superintendents have said they focus on individual student situations and are looking for guidance from the state on establishing specific policies.
The state department of education has general policies on bullying, harassment and discrimination. While the policies do include the words gender identity, sexual orientation and sex, the policies do not have sections on how to deal with specific instances or situations with students who may face discrimination based on those characterizations.
Virginia Department of Education director of media relations Charles Pyle said the department will not develop policies where the General Assembly and State Board of Education has authority to regulate and provide guidance.
“This is a matter of local School Board policy right now,” Pyle said. “There is no statewide policy that covers this specific issue. The General Assembly, from time to time, will decide that school boards need to have policies on a particular area.”
Members of the General Assembly would have to file legislation for school divisions and boards to include certain policies in their manuals, according to Pyle.
“This would change the code of Virginia to require school boards to have certain policies,” Pyle said. “The General Assembly could also direct the State Board of Education to have a guidance document or model policy to help local school boards carry out that policy under the legislation.”
Local school divisions
All Tidewater-area school divisions have general policies prohibiting discrimination, bullying and harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, as the state department of education does.
The policies include categories for sexual orientation, sex, gender identity and transgender status in accordance with Title IX, according to school division superintendents.
As with the department of education, Tidewater-area school divisions do not have specific policies on situations involving gender identity, transgender students or sexual orientation.
All division superintendents of West Point, King William, King and Queen and New Kent public schools said they do their best to accommodate all students in individual situations.
New Kent County Public Schools Superintendent David Myers said the division has tried to meet the needs of individual LGBTQ students over the past few years.
“We engage with the families and try to help them, as well as all kinds of students, feel comfortable in school and meet their needs the best we can,” Myers said.
New Kent County Public Schools recently installed partitions in the boy’s bathroom and put privacy strips between the cracks of the bathroom stall doors to increase privacy, according to Myers.
Other division superintendents said they work to make sure all students feel safe and comfortable in their learning environments, although did not cite any specific accommodations or measurements they have taken.
Local school division policies do not include specifics on LGBTQ students’ freedom of expression and choice, such as gender identity pronouns.
The policies do say students are allowed to express themselves as long as it is appropriate, safe and does not disrupt other students’ learning environments.
In terms of equality in schools, all division superintendents said they teach students in their schools to treat each other with respect.
King William County Public Schools’ policy is to educate students to have core civic values and virtues and to be understanding of those in diverse, social and religious groups, according to superintendent David White.
Myers said students in New Kent County Public Schools are taught to be tolerant and inclusive.
“There are certainly high expectations that students are tolerant of one another, regardless of their backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identity,” Myers said.
West Point Public Schools Division Superintendent Laura Abel said school division guidance counselors work to promote respect and equal opportunity for all students.
“For all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” Abel said. “School counselors promote awareness of and education on issues related to LGBTQ students and encourage a safe and affirming school environment.”
King and Queen County Public Schools Division Superintendent Carol Carter said students take a resource class called “Guidance” to teach them to be inclusive.
“It includes the topics of discrimination, bullying, harassment, Title IX and student conduct,” Carter said. “Students start the class in elementary school, early on.”
Abel and Myers said school divisions have had or currently have LGBTQ students in their schools.
White said although he is certain the school division currently has or has had LGBTQ students in its schools, the division does not know unless the student self-identifies.
Carter said the school division of King and Queen County is so small that she could identify a student by saying they have had or have LGBTQ students.
“I will just say that King and Queen County Public Schools has a diverse student body,” Carter said.
LGBTQ policies in public schools are up to interpretation, according to LGBTQ organization Equality Virginia executive director James Parrish.
“Unfortunately in this instance, Virginia’s public education system is very decentralized,” Parrish said. “It is very vague and leaves local school boards up to their own devices, which creates quite a bit of inequity.”
Parrish said the lack of specific policies or guidelines creates problems for students and families when the student goes to a different school division, or even a different school in the division.
“The student and family has to re-negotiate with school administration and inform them of their situation,” Parrish said. “Some school systems aren’t as accepting as others.”
Guidelines on LGBTQ students in public schools from the General Assembly would be easier on local school boards and divisions, according to Parrish.
“Most educators I meet go to those schools every day and want to do what’s best for the students,” Parrish said. “I think in order to do that, the General Assembly and State Board of Education need to work together to address these issues.”
All Tidewater-area division superintendents said they would like to see guidance from the General Assembly and Board of Education on these issues.
“I think any additional guidance we can get to help these students in our schools would be very helpful,” Abel said.
Myers said he and most of his colleagues want to be fair and inclusive with all students and be responsive to those concerned in the community.
“Most colleagues say they want to be advised on what they should do because they have communities that feel strongly on both sides,” Myers said. “It puts schools in the middle of what they are supposed to do and there is no clear guidance.”
Del. Chris Peace, R-Mechanicsville, who represents New Kent and part of King William, said the General Assembly does reserve its prerogative to set state policy.
“In these matters the judicial process will likely have the first review,” Peace said. “Strict scrutiny should be applied. Personally, I cannot support government-coerced speech and am concerned by school divisions’ actions.”
Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, who represents part of King William, including the town of West Point and King and Queen, said in these types of situations it is important that all parties’ interests and views are heard.
“The 1st Amendment is the cornerstone of the United States Constitution,” Hodges said. “We need to remain true to its intent and refrain from infringing upon an individuals right to free speech. In such cases it is up to the courts, not the General Assembly, to interpret the Constitution.”
Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038, firstname.lastname@example.org or @ashleyrluck on Twitter