- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Concerned parents are trying to block a vote by the Fairfax County Public School Board — which oversees the largest public school system in Virginia — to include “gender identity” in its nondiscrimination policy.

Under the new provision, transgender students and faculty would be considered a protected class, meaning that male students who identify as female could use female bathrooms, and parents would not be able to opt their children out of classes taught by transgender teachers.

Parents are outraged that the school board hasn’t given them the opportunity to ask questions about the implications of the new provision, and say the board is sneaking a policy amendment through without collaborating with the community.

Jeanette Hough, a mother of two FCPS students and with one more about to enter the system, said that the school board has flooded her inbox with emails about changes to school start times and holding all-day Monday classes for preschoolers. Those emails even included studies on the effects of those changes and surveys for parents to take.

But this time, the board has had little communication with parents or PTAs.

“It seems to me, if this is an honest concern, there should be an honest discussion and an honest debate. It seems very sneaky and political and not looking after the best interests of our community and children,” Ms. Hough said. “I would like time to ask questions. For example, why is this addition necessary? How did this come to the table?”

The issue of transgenderism has been raised in the national debate in recent months over such celebrities as “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox and former Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star Bruce Jenner.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, ruled in March that local school boards have the authority under state law to include sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination policies. Under previous administrations only the state assembly could authorize such a change.

“Every Virginian has the right to live, learn, and work without fear of discrimination,” Mr. Herring said in a written statement on the decision. “That’s a Virginia value, and one that we must guard even more carefully when it comes to our children.”

John Torre, a spokesman for the school board, said that parents were able to raise concerns about the policy change when it was introduced at the last public meeting on April 23.

If approved, the policy would read: “No student, employee, or applicant for employment in the Fairfax County Public Schools shall, on the basis of [among other things] gender identity be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity, as required by law.”

The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church to vote on the gender identity policy.

Mr. Torre said the board hadn’t decided anything yet regarding accommodations that will be provided under the new policy and said that FCPS will hire a consultant to assist in developing appropriate regulations that protect the rights of all students and to comply with state and federal law.

But Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition and an FCPS mother, said that the way the meetings are set up does not give parents ample opportunity to discuss their concerns. At the April 23 meeting there were ten slots allotted for parents and community members to sign up to speak about any issue. Each speaker was allowed just three minutes to talk.

Ms. Lafferty said this week a group of parents got up at 6 a.m. to sign up to speak at the Thursday board meeting, but demand for the slots was so high that the system crashed.

“They want to push this through,” she said. “The board took years to discuss sleep deprivation and if they should change start times for school kids, and now they are giving one hour max conversation time about this?”

The majority of the board members support the change, but board member Elizabeth Schultz, who represents Springfield, is working to postpone the change until parents have had time to have their questions answered.

Ms. Schultz told The Washington Times that she submitted an amendment to the proposal on Tuesday that, if approved, would postpone a final vote until October so the board can be presented with draft resolutions and presentations on the impact of the change.

“We don’t have an understanding of what this policy means and how it’s going to affect our buildings and our schools,” Ms. Schultz said, adding that taxpayers would bear the cost of building new gender-neutral bathrooms for some schools.

“There is a lack of understanding here that we are a pubic school system funded with public taxpayer money for the public benefit. This is not a political playground that is an opportunity to do social or political experimenting. Anything else is less than transparent and certainly less than accountable to the stakeholders,” Ms. Schultz said. “I think to call this premature is a profound understatement.”

Robert Rigby, a Latin teacher and the sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance at West Potomac High School, said that while harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation have decreased in recent years, transgender persons continue to experience a great deal of harassment.

“Our whole community, our staff and our students, need to be conscious of the concerns of students who are different in this way. The school board has the authority and the opportunity to make a crucial difference in the lives of our students to take the first steps, and only the first steps, toward making school a tolerable place for transgender students,” Mr. Rigby said during the April 23 meeting.

But opponents say the sweeping policy will hurt the majority of students, and that schools can accommodate a small number of transgender students without encroaching on the rights of other students.

“What we are seeing over and over is that the biologically female is being told, ‘If you don’t want to be in a bathroom with a person with gender identity issues, then you need to wait or you need to go somewhere else,’” Ms. Lafferty said, pointing out that most schools have gender-neutral restrooms in the nurse’s office. “The majority is being hurt by a very small minority, and there are ways to provide and protect for the minority. “

According to Ms. Lafferty, the new policy could domino into private schools and community sports teams as well, and it is likely that other school districts will follow suit.

Ms. Hough argued that discussions about gender identity should be left to parents, not the school board.

“I certainly think that this should be in the home, and I certainly don’t think we should be making broad policy changes before we even understand the implications. Bruce Jenner is an adult, and he can certainly do what he wants to do,” Ms. Hough said. “Where’s the protection for children who are following their sexual identity? A boy who now says he identifies as a girl is now encroaching on my daughter’s privacy.”


• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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