For nearly an hour Tuesday afternoon, Open High School students in Richmond gathered outside to denounce the Youngkin administration’s new model policies that walk back protections for transgender and nonbinary students.
The students chanted “Say No to Glenn,” a nod to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who this month quietly authorized the undoing of Virginia Department of Education policy that protects transgender students, in order to provide more parental control. A student held up a sign of a snake in a red vest, with the phrase “Glenn the Snake” written next to it.
One student holding a sign that said “my identity is not an ‘ideology’ ” spoke through tears, criticizing Youngkin for taking away schools as a safe space for transgender students. The student, who uses all pronouns, said they know that not all families are accepting of their children.
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Another student questioned how is it respectful to call students by their “dead name” — a birth name no longer used — and pronouns that they do not prefer.
Several thousand Virginia students at roughly 100 public schools statewide protested Tuesday to voice their concerns over the administration’s new model policies.
Pride Liberation — a student-run group of queer and allied students in Virginia advocating for the rights of LGBTQIA+ students — organized the statewide walkouts.
Hundreds of students flooded out of Henrico High School on Tuesday afternoon, chanting “trans lives matter.” Students held signs with messages that advocated for transgender students’ rights, including some with profanity directed toward Youngkin.
As of 4:35 p.m. Tuesday, 19,506 public comments, a majority in opposition to the proposed guidelines, had been submitted to the Department of Education. The 30-day public comment period opened on Monday.
Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said Tuesday: “While students exercise their free speech today, we’d note that these policies state that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment.
“Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation,” Porter said.
Youngkin, speaking Friday at the Texas Tribune’s TribFest in Austin, said parents should be involved in such matters.
“We must have parents at the front of the line — not at the exclusion of a trusted teacher or counselor — but parents must be the first stop for these decisions,” he said.
The Henrico County School Board last year did not fully adopt the model policies then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration developed to protect transgender students.
The board revised several existing policies to include language about affirming transgender students, but the policies stopped short of including policies about access to bathrooms and facilities.
Also in Henrico, students held demonstrations Tuesday at Glen Allen High School and Hermitage High School.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who sits on the House Education Committee and is a teacher at Glen Allen High, called the proposed policies “mean-spirited.”
“To say that this is about parents is just wrong. What about the parents who are supporting their kids? Despite what parents want, this policy says that teachers and staff members can still discriminate against their kid,” VanValkenburg said in an interview. ”We’re not talking about parents here — we’re talking about certain parents.”
The Youngkin administration’s model guidelines repeatedly assert parents’ rights to make decisions with respect to their children’s upbringing. They cite U.S. Supreme Court rulings and a Virginia law that says: “A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.”
Roughly a dozen students gathered by Midlothian High School’s flagpole Tuesday morning, carrying signs denouncing the proposed guidelines. A school administrator told reporters to leave the school grounds.
Skylar, a senior at Open High, transitioned the summer before her junior year.
“I’m a trans girl,” Skylar said as she draped the transgender flag over herself at Open’s walkout on Tuesday. Skylar recounted how nervous she was to head back to school after she began to transition and having to come out to people. But after being called by the name Skylar, she said she knew in that moment things were going to be OK.
“It is so, so important that trans kids’ names and pronouns are used. It is so important for teachers to use trans kids’ names and pronouns, and it’s so important for trans kids to have support from other students, because it really makes such a difference.”
A few other trans students who attend Open High spoke out against the proposed guidelines Tuesday afternoon. LGBTQIA+ students as well as allies also spoke, pledging their support for their transgender and nonbinary peers.
Richmond School Board member Liz Doerr, who represents the 1st District, introduced an “RPS Transgender Student Protection Resolution” during a meeting last week. The resolution rejects the proposed guidelines.
Pride Liberation is calling on the state Department of Education to revoke the proposed guidelines and for local school boards to affirm their commitment to protecting all students “by rejecting these bigoted proposed guidelines.”
“We’re walking out today to make it clear to @GovernorVA that students can’t learn if we’re worried about abuse, harassment, depression, and our rights. All we want is to be able to learn in inclusive school that let us thrive like every other student,” Pride Liberation tweeted Tuesday morning.
The organization tweeted earlier Tuesday that over 1,000 students walked out before 11 a.m.
The “2022 Model Policies On The Privacy, Dignity And Respect For All Students And Parents In Virginia’s Public Schools” will require students to use school bathrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth “except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”
The document cites the case of Grimm v. Gloucester, in which the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found in 2020 that the Gloucester County School Board violated former student Gavin Grimm’s constitutional rights when it banned him from using the boys school bathrooms.
The new policies also specify student participation in school athletics and activities shall be based on “biological sex” and require parental approval of changes to a student’s name, along with any nicknames or changes in pronouns.
Legal experts have begun questioning the legality of the new policies, with some saying authority is needed from the General Assembly before rolling out the guidelines. The 2021 model policies released under Northam, a Democrat, were enacted at the direction of General Assembly legislation passed in 2020.
In a video message Tuesday, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, said “the governor’s unilateral efforts to reverse protections, privacy rights and acknowledgments of transgender students and their identities goes against current federal and state policies.”
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who co-sponsored the state law that led to the Northam administration’s model policies, tweeted Tuesday, “At over 16k comments in 24hrs we don’t need to wait 29 days to know the politically-motivated, illegal new model policies for the treatment of trans kids @GovernorVA’s hacks at the Dept of Ed sent down aren’t going to fly. I call on the Governor to withdraw the new policies now.”
Word of Tuesday’s walkouts made it to the White House, where a reporter mentioned the events in Virginia before asking press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre if the White House supports transgender students.
Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden “believes transgender youth should be allowed to go to school freely, to be able to express themselves freely and be able to have the protections that they need to be who they are.”
In Hanover County, where no walkouts were held Tuesday, the School Board adopted its own version of the Northam administration’s 2021 guidelines in August, nearly a year past the approval deadline. The Hanover policy requires transgender students to submit a written request to school administration asking for access to the schools’ facilities that align with the students’ gender identities.
The Hanover policy mirrors language in the federal case of Grimm v. Gloucester by suggesting students provide school administration with a statement that explains how they have “consistently, persistently and insistently” expressed their gender identity.
Although Hanover’s board passed a policy, the controversy has continued. Last week, administrators told teachers to remove “safe space” stickers from all campuses. After hearing concerns from parents regarding the stickers, the board reinforced with school division administration its expectations in regard to a board policy that prohibits employees from displaying posters or flyers that are political in nature.
The stickers, which have a rainbow background and display the words “safe space for all,” also include the logo for the organization GLSEN, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the end of discrimination toward LGBT students in schools.