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School board rejects revised policy regarding transgender students
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School board rejects revised policy regarding transgender students

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School board meeting last Tuesday night.

An evenly divided crowd packed the school board meeting last Tuesday night.

State mandated guidelines not in effect in Hanover

By a 4-3 vote, the Hanover School Board rejected a proposal to amend the current policy regarding the treatment of transgender students that would have placed the district in compliance with Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) guidelines.

The Virginia General Assembly passed the new policy last year and tasked the VDOE with providing local school districts with instructions regarding necessary policy changes.

Last summer, the VDOE instructed all 132 school districts to install policies that are consistent or more comprehensive with the new rules that provide, among other things, the right of transgender students to use the bathroom of their preferred identity.

School districts were required to have these measures in place by the start of school in September, but Hanover took its first formal vote on the issue last week.

Members first approached the matter at a school board workshop held in September, took public comment at their October meeting and scheduled a special meeting to gather public input on the issue two weeks ago.

In the three meetings that ensued since the workshop, the board has heard a myriad of opinions on the subject, but a vocal opposition was clearly present at last week’s meeting, as a number of speakers again urged board members to disapprove the changes or defer action on the matter until more information could be gathered.

The board considered three policy changes at last week’s meeting. A revision addressing the treatment of controversial material in Hanover classrooms passed unanimously, as did a policy regarding student records that allows students to alter those documents to display their preferred pronoun.

But when Chickahominy representative Bob Hundley motioned for approval of the policy revisions requiring bathroom and locker room use of their preferred identity by transgender students, no one provided a second so the issue was officially tabled.

School attorney Lisa Seward said the failure of the proposal to receive a second did not mean the bill was dead, only tabled, and could be considered with the proper motion.

“The policy is still on the table,” Seward said.

Beaverdam representative John Axselle said that was not the message he had intended to send to an anxious public who turned out in masse for the last two months to voice their opinions on the controversial topic. 

“Most of my constituents were opposed to the policy,” Axselle said following the meeting.

“In other cases where I’ve been involved with something that has not passed, it’s not tabled. It’s dead,” Axselle said. “This is a very divisive issue. I think we do need to address this issue one way or the other so our community knows what we plan to do,” Axselle said after Hundley’s motion failed.

South Anna representative Bob May motioned for a denial of the revised policy, an action that leaves the current policy in place that equal opportunity education policy proponents contend does not go far enough and is in violation of state law.

“It is my opinion from hearing the last two weeks… that we need to address a policy that begins with the safety and security of all of our students and not choose students that might benefit from it,” May said. “I’d like to go back to the drawing board. My vote is to not approve this and give us time to work on something else to bring back at a later time. I don't think this meets what my constituents are telling me they would like to have.”

Hundley suggested a deferment might be a more appropriate measure, but May was insistent on his motion to disapprove the revised discrimination policy.

“The community is ready for us to make a statement one way or the other,” Axselle agreed.

“I think we should take this policy off the board for now,” May responded.

Seward suggested a motion to deny leaves the county vulnerable in two ways. First, the district has failed to comply with VDOE mandated guidelines. In addition, the vote to reject the policy is in direct conflict with a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that guarantees the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of their preferred gender.

A Gloucester County student sued the local school board regarding its decision to provide a single stall bathroom option for the student and not allow the use of preferred bathrooms or locker rooms.

When the Supreme Court of the United States failed to hear an appeal of the case, the law was established through the Fourth Circuit Court ruling in favor of the student who was eventually awarded $1.3 million.

During public comment periods during the past two meetings, some speakers urged board members to delay a vote until the new governor takes office.

But, Seward told board members that a change in that policy requires more than an executive action.

“There’s nothing that a new governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general could do to overturn a Fourth Circuit decision now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case,” she said.

“By not approving the policy… are we asking our staff to break the law on a daily basis?” Hundley questioned.

Seward hinted the ruling of the Fourth Circuit does represent established law.

May’s motion to reject the proposed amendments to the policy was seconded by Bob Ikenberry. George Sutton and Axselle joined them in opposition, while Ola Hawkins, Hundley and Sterling Daniel voted against the denial.

The board’s action leaves the current policy regarding transgender students in place where single stall options are available.

The vote followed another standing room only session where more than 60 speakers had signed up to voice an opinion. Judging from the signs displayed, it was an evenly divided audience, but a majority of speakers voiced opposition to the proposed changes citing a variety of concerns including safety and welfare of students.

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