Supt. briefs School Board on transgender law

Published 8:08 pm Friday, June 18, 2021

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A state law passed in 2020 requires all Virginia public schools to adopt policies pertaining to transgender students by the start of the 2021-2022 school year. But Isle of Wight County Schools isn’t planning to make many changes.

The law, listed on Virginia’s books as state code 22.1-23.2, tasked the Virginia Department of Education with developing model policies for transgender students governing bathroom and locker room usage, protection of student privacy, bullying and harassment, sex-based dress codes and participation in sex-specific school activities, with the exception of athletics — which are governed by the Virginia High School League. It requires local school boards to adopt policies consistent with the VDOE language.

According to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, the Virginia School Boards Association has identified 15 existing policies on Isle of Wight’s books that either already comply with the new law or can be easily modified to become compliant.

Most of the changes Isle of Wight is proposing involve simply tweaking the language of the existing policies to reference Virginia Code 22.1-23.3.

“If you group those 15 together it meets the requirement of the new law, so we do not have to have a separate transgender policy,” Thornton said. “They fall under these 15 policies that protect all students.”

The school division plans to identify existing single-user unisex bathrooms in each of its nine schools as available for use by any student, regardless of gender identity.

“But I do want to make the [school] board aware and the public aware though that Virginia law right now is clear that transgender students can use the bathroom in which they identify if they choose to do so,” Thornton said. “That is the law right now.”

But as for the wording of the VDOE’s transgender-specific model policies, “I’m recommending that we do not adopt their language,” Thornton said.

For example, the VDOE’s guidance document states disclosing a student’s transgender status can pose imminent safety risks to students without supportive families, such as that student losing family support or housing. As such, if transgender students ask that their parents not be informed, this should be respected.

“We disagree with that,” Thornton had previously told a crowd at a May 19 meeting of the Southern and Central Isle of Wight Citizens Group.

At the same citizens group meeting, he took issue with the state’s proposed gender-inclusive dress code language, which states that “genitals, buttocks and nipples” must be covered.

“I’m not putting that in the student handbook; I’m going to put the dress code we’ve always had, that a skirt is only so long and stuff that we’ve done in the past,” Thornton said.

Eleven of the 15 existing policies include minor tweaks to their language and four, which Thornton said already comply with the new law, have no changes at all.

The policies will go before Isle of Wight’s School Board for a first read next month and are slated for adoption this August.

“If we do that we will be ready to start school and meet the code,” Thornton said.