In 2020, the legislature passed a transgender students rights law. It largely hasn’t been enforced.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law requiring local school divisions to adopt model policies extending rights to transgender students. But even as debates over those policies have convulsed school board meetings across the state and been debated by the candidates for governor, many districts remain out of compliance.
They’ve either rejected the Virginia Department of Education model policy outright or are adopting standards that fall short of the department’s guidelines.
Earlier this month, VPM reported that only two divisions in central Virginia have adopted policies that are fully consistent with the model. And at least six school boards, including Augusta, Bedford and Pittsylvania counties, have voted to explicitly reject the policy, according to tracking by Equality Virginia, an advocacy organization for the LGBTQ community.
“It really does have me scratching my head because these school boards need to be in compliance with state and federal law,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck. “And that’s what this guidance really helps school boards do.” The document lays out detailed steps for addressing the rights of students, from maintaining privacy about their transgender status (including from their parents, in the case of nonsupportive families) to developing gender-neutral dress codes and allowing them to use the restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identities.
Beyond the fact that many districts aren’t following the law, there also appears to be little, if any, enforcement. This summer, James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, sent a memo informing divisions that they assumed “all legal responsibility for noncompliance.” But the Department of Education doesn’t have the authority to assess penalties or otherwise pressure local boards to adopt consistent policies (the department isn’t even tracking which divisions are meeting the standards, according to spokesperson Ken Blackstone).
During a September debate, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin both signaled that local school boards should have a large role in shaping policies on the treatment of transgender students.
“I’ve always felt that school boards have the pulse of the local community, they should be making their decisions,” McAuliffe said. He doubled down later that month, repeating in another debate that “locals” should have input on the issue (though the state “will always issue guidance,” he said).
Youngkin has gone a step further, saying parents should have a voice in the “dialogue.” But the 2020 law, at least as written, largely takes the local choice out of the equation, requiring school boards to set policies that are consistent with — or even more comprehensive than — a model drafted by the Virginia Department of Education. The document offers specific recommendations on a wide range of policies, from using the names and pronouns students identify with to allowing them to use the restrooms that align with their gender identities.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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