After months of heated debate and consideration, the Hanover County School Board voted to adopt a controversial transgender and non-binary bathroom and locker room policy last Tuesday.
The policy, which has caused intense citizen divide over its material, was originally proposed during the regularly scheduled Aug. 9 school board meeting and was the sole topic of discussion at an Aug. 16 special meeting.
But while school board members offered citizens some clarity on commonly-raised questions at the second special meeting on the issue held Aug. 30, none of the people in the packed school board meeting room were allowed to speak before the policy was approved in a 5-2 vote. Ashland representative Ola J. Hawkins and John Redd, representative of the Mechanicsville District, voted against its adoption.
The policy was drafted under the guidance of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal advocacy group. The school board announced its engagement with ADF in March in review of the Hanover County Public Schools (HCPS) transgender student policy.
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The policy proposes that a student who identifies as transgender or non-binary must request access to the restroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity but not their sex. The student and their parent or legal guardian must submit a written request to the principal of their school and any relevant information requested by school administration that may include a statement on how the student has “consistently, persistently and insistently” expressed their gender identity, signed statements from the student’s physician, therapist or licensed counselor verifying a gender dysphoria diagnosis, the student’s disciplinary or criminal records and any other relevant information from interested parties.
School administration may request a meeting with the student and parent or guardian to discuss the request and solicit additional information. After all relevant documentation is submitted, the principal of the school will provide a written summary of the request, along with supporting documentation, to the school board for review at its next regularly-scheduled monthly business meeting. Each request and relevant information will remain confidential, and the school board will provide their decision in writing to the parent or guardian of the student. The board can request additional information if necessary and wait to resolve the request until it obtains all relevant information.
Citizens raised a series of concerns with the policy’s language during the school board’s Aug. 16 special meeting, which invited citizens to address the board on the policy.
During last week’s meeting, vice chair Bob May, representative of the South Anna District, clarified that transgender and non-binary students who have had a similar request resolved in the past will not be required to complete the policy’s process.
George Sutton, representative of the Henry District, added that “the board fully intends to consider all relevant information” when reviewing requests.
Robert Hundley, representative of the Chickahominy District, said he is not “100% in favor of the entire policy” and raised concerns with its language, specifically referencing the list of possible student documentation required for review.
The inclusion of a criminal background check for possible review by school administration was targeted by several citizen speakers during the Aug. 16 public input meeting, who suggested that it may invite harmful implications of transgender students being dangerous.
“While I am intending to support the policy, I certainly don’t think it’s perfect,” Hundley said. “And I do believe that we owe it to our faculty, staff and students to have a policy at the beginning of the school year, and that’s primarily why I’m supporting it.”
Hundley moved to amend the proposed policy to strike the criminal background check from the list of bulleted items.
“And I would hope and I would pledge to work with interest groups moving forward to make the policy better through other amendments,” Hundley said. “We make amendments to policies all the time.”
Sutton said he knows the overall policy is a “very sensitive issue” and said a criminal background check is “always a scary sounding word” but voiced his opposition to Hundley’s suggested amendment.
“Keep in mind, when we’re considering, for example, a biological boy is going to be allowed access to the girl’s restroom and there’s any criminal activity in that person’s background that relates to this type of situation, we need to know about that. There will be people that want to know about that,” Sutton said.
The amendment did not pass with only three votes of approval from Hundley, May and Hawkins.
Redd voiced his opposition to the overall policy prior to the board’s vote. He was not present for the meeting due to a prior commitment but participated via phone call.
Redd said he doesn’t believe the policy is “mutually acceptable to parents of transgender students and parents of cisgender students.”
“I’m sympathetic to the needs of our students on each side of this issue and sympathetic to the need for a policy that will protect our teachers and administrators from exposure to lawsuits,” Redd said. “But I am not in favor of the policy that has been presented here.”
After Redd’s comments, the board immediately moved into the vote, which passed 5-2 in favor of adopting the policy. The meeting adjourned immediately after the vote.
May clarified during the meeting that the policy applies to all HCPS schools moving forward.
In a press conference held by the Virginia State Conference NAACP on Aug. 24, state NAACP branches called on John Axselle, representative of the Beaverdam District, to resign from the school board and his current position as the board’s chairman in relation to the engagement of ADF in drafting the policy and other matters.
Axselle told The Richmond Times-Dispatch last Tuesday that he does not plan on resigning from the board.
“I’m here to serve the children… I don’t want anything else,” Axselle said. “I’ve been doing it for 27 years. If folks are upset with me and want me to resign, I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sorry. But I’ve tried to do my best for the kids. That’s all I want.”
Axselle told The Times-Dispatch that the board’s “overall concern truly is all the children.”
“If I’m going to be letting a biological male or female, in either direction OK, I would want to make sure that we know ahead of time that they don’t have any ulterior intent,” he said.
Because of anticipated interest from the public on this topic, the school board issued free tickets on a first come, first-served basis, with some people who couldn’t fit in the room watching the meeting on a live broadcast on a screen outside the building.
Although the school board meeting did not offer the public the opportunity to weigh in on the issue again, a few parents spoke with The Local after it ended to share their thoughts on the vote.
Terra Lawrence, a mother of children enrolled in HCPS, said “I am pleased that the school board made the decision to pass this policy, which I think protects parental rights and protects the privacy rights of our students.”
Chris Berg, the father of a non-binary high school student in Hanover County, said he is “really disappointed in the school board.”
“I really hope that they actually listen to some of the feedback from community members,” Berg said.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Anna Bryson contributed to this article.