Parental complaints have prompted a Virginia school board to reverse a decision that respected a fourth grader’s gender identity, forcing her either back into the boys’ bathroom, or into single-stall or staff restrooms.
Hartwood Elementary School, part of the Stafford County school system, started by accommodating the student’s identity. She was allowed to use the girls’ room per her gender identity and in consultation with her parents. When another parent complained, the district’s Executive Director of Human Resources, Rick L. Fitzgerald, released a message on behalf of the district referring to recent guidance from the Department of Justice that indicates that the “sex” protections under Title IX protect transgender students’ use of facilities that match the gender with which they identify. Allowing the fourth-grader to use the girls’ room was simply the district complying with the law.
But at a school board meeting Tuesday night, many parents spoke out about the “controversy” — mostly against the transgender-inclusive policy. They had organized as part of a group called “Save Our Schools,” and they testified that students’ privacy rights were being threatened and that their children were at risk from “predatory individuals.” One parent went as far as to suggest that the school was inviting bullying, rape, sodomization, and possibly death. Off the official podium, the rhetoric seemed to be even worse. One parent testified that she’d heard opponents of the policy describing transgender students as “freaks” and “undisciplined” outside the meeting.
The transgender student’s father, Jonathan Adams, also testified. He admitted to having some of the same misconceptions when the child he thought was his son insisted she was a girl. “And then I watched my little girl grow up,” he said. Adams proclaimed that he was “very proud to have a special little girl,” and implored others “not to trade understanding for fear or trade misconceptions for hate.”
Later in the evening, however, the school board voted 6–0 to direct the superintendent to restrict the girl’s bathroom use. District officials told ThinkProgress that this did not constitute a district-wide change in policy, but it does immediately impact the student in question. Superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson declined an interview with ThinkProgress on advice of legal counsel, but the School Board is expected to release a statement Wednesday afternoon about the decision.
Stafford County schools have a nondiscrimination statement that protects “sex,” but not “gender identity” (or “sexual orientation”). Few Virginia schools do, in part because in 2002, then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) issued an advisory opinion declaring that Virginia school boards did not have the authority to add LGBT-specific protections so long as the state legislature hadn’t passed them. Current Attorney General Mark Herring (D) reversed that opinion just this month, and some districts have begun adding the LGBT-enumerated protections.
Meanwhile, another Virginia school is facing a lawsuit from the ACLU for passing a similar policy forcing transgender students to only use facilities that match the sex they were assigned at birth. In that case, it is sophomore transgender boy Gavin Grimm who is just wants to be able to use the boys’ restroom in peace. “Being singled out,” he said in December, “is a glaring reminder of my differences and causes me significant discomfort every time I have to use the restroom.”
Across the country, trans students have been successful at challenging their schools’ anti-trans policies. In 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that then-six-year-old Coy Mathis had to be allowed to use the girls’ restroom. Just last year, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that transgender students deserve equal access to the restroom. California passed a law in 2013 guaranteeing transgender students nondiscrimination protections across the board, and so far conservatives have failed to overturn it. Additionally, many state high school associations — including Virginia’s — are also establishing policies guaranteeing transgender students the opportunity to participate in athletics in accordance with their gender identity.
There is a mounting backlash against these policies, however. Lawmakers in some states, like South Dakota, are trying to rescind those inclusive athletic policies. Other states have proposed legislation that would go so far as to make schools legally liable for allowing transgender students to use the right bathroom. Kentucky’s bill died this week, but similar legislation is still under consideration in Texas and Florida.