Midway through September, the first month of the school year, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) proposed new model policies for the treatment of transgender students in Virginia schools that began a hot-tempered debate in the state over parent and student rights. The proposed guidance, which is undergoing its final days of public comment, includes the following:
-Provides initiatives against harassment and bullying in schools
-Requires the maintenance of official records containing the legal names and sex of students
-Mandates that participation in activities separated by sex, such as athletics, be done according to biological sex, including the use of bathrooms and locker rooms
-Prevents schools from encouraging teachers to hide student information from their parents
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and his administration ran on the message of parental rights regarding their student’s education in 2021, and they have continued to display a strong commitment to this issue throughout their first year in office. Their platform reflects the views of many conservatives in Virginia and across the country: parents matter and have legal protections regarding their child’s upbringing. According to Virginia Code: “A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child” (1-240.1. Rights of Parents).
Jillian Balow, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote that “parents can’t be full partners if they are shut out of discussions about potentially life-changing decisions for their children.” Parent rights advocates affirm that these policies will open the discussion on sensitive topics while also protecting the dignity of students and respecting the parental role in their children’s lives.
Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups take the other side of this debate. They believe that these changes will harm transgender students and “call for the misgendering and outing of children in schools where they’re supposed to be safe,” according to Del. Mike Sullin (D). According to data collected by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ suicide awareness advocacy group, minors who are transgender experience a higher risk of depression and suicidality. Opponents of the new guidelines believe that these policies will further increase these risks and prevent students from confiding in teachers and receiving the support they need when navigating confusing and challenging emotions.
The debate has heated up on both sides through competing displays of activism. Parents across Virginia have cheered the initiatives proposed by the Youngkin administration, and GOP candidates in battleground states have echoed these opinions on the campaign trail. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Superintendent Balow wrote that she believes “every child — including transgender students — has the right to learn in a safe and supportive learning environment that is free from discrimination… [and] every parent has the right to expect that their children will be well educated and that their neighborhood school will not actively seek to undermine their deeply held values and beliefs.”
However, the most notable demonstrations of activism occurred on the opposing side, when thousands of Virginia students participated in walkouts across the state to challenge the model policies. Laura Troung, a student at Falls Church High School, stated that she and her friends “want our school districts to stand up for us and support us and say that they’ll reject these guidelines.” Student at Langley High School, Catherine Knecht, said that the proposed guidelines are “prioritizing the parents’ will over the child,” which goes against the very purpose of schools, which she says is “to educate and keep students safe.”
Whatever side you fall on, there is a consensus across the state that education is one of the most pressing issues facing Virginia’s political climate today. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, educators and lawmakers alike are all working diligently to restore Virginia schools to a place where students can feel safe and learn without hindrance. As Virginia faces sensitive topics like gender identity in schools, we must first and foremost continue to have open and honest conversations in our communities.