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Williams: The Hanover School Board's transgender policy would double down on discrimination

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Virginia, a primary battleground during the Civil War, is now a conservative Christian legal outfit’s staging ground in the culture wars.

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Alliance Defending Freedom helped the Hanover County School Board craft an odious policy that would require transgender students to submit a written application, disciplinary records, a criminal background check and information from their personal physician to use a bathroom, locker room or changing facility that aligns with their gender identity.

A School Board clearly hostile toward transgender rights would have the final say.

The policy proposal was on Tuesday night’s School Board agenda. Its ultimate approval appears to be a fait accompli on a board that, if anything, is even more ardently conservative than the one that enlisted the aid of the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom earlier this year.

The Hanover board, in the process, has slow-walked compliance with a 2020 state law, the resulting model guidelines for the treatment of transgender and nonbinary students, and federal legal precedent.

Atlee High School protest

“We love trans. kids, yes we do,” Michael Merrill, 13, and his mother, Kelly Merrill, right, shout with other protesters across a street from Atlee High School in Hanover County, Va., on Friday, March 18, 2022. They attended the protest against Hanover County’s recent policy about transgender students.

And now we have an insulting policy that conflates being transgender with criminality. No other class of Hanover students needs a background check to pee.

It’s bad enough that transgender students are bullied in school. It’s unforgiveable that their School Board is party to the bullying.

“There’s no reason to have our children go through a background check to use the restroom,” said Kelly Carter Merrill, the mother of a transgender student. “It is unfounded. It is discriminatory. And they are not qualified to make those calls anyway,” she said of the board.


Mechanicsville High School students held a protest just outside the school property in April. Their goal was to remind Hanover County schools of their duty to protect transgender students.

Or as Christopher Berg, the parent of a nonbinary student, said: “It’s tough enough being a trans kid without having to go through a judging process to decide if you’re worthy to go to the bathroom. It’s going to be pretty traumatizing.”

But the Hanover School Board majority knows which way the political winds are blowing and has seized upon the “parents rights” campaign that swept Glenn Youngkin into the governor’s office. Now, they have friends in high places, including the U.S. Supreme Court, which appears to be willing to blur the line between church and state.

Add the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based ADF and you have the perfect storm of Christian nationalism and right-wing politics shaping K-12 education in Virginia.

ADF’s relationship with the Harrisonburg School Board is not nearly as chummy as its romance with Hanover’s board; in June, it filed a lawsuit against the Harrisonburg body over its transgender policy. And in a case now before the Virginia Supreme Court, ADF is defending a former West Point High School teacher, Peter Vlaming, who was fired from his job for refusing to call a transgender student by his preferred pronoun.

All of this once appeared to be settled law.

During this special series of After the Monuments, Kelli and Michael Paul are talking with folks who were involved and nearby the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville about the Confederate monuments in that city that ultimately turned violent and led to the death of a young woman. In this episode, Kelli and Michael Paul are talking with Devon Henry. Devon is the owner of a Team Henry Enterprises, a Black-owned contracting firm, that was contracted to take down the Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Richmond and several other cities. In this conversation, Devon shares stories of the journey from being awarded the contract to removing the monuments, his safety, to fulfilling the prophecy that the monuments that were once put up by Black men would one day be taken down by a Black man.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit both ruled that the Gloucester County School Board violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by prohibiting then-student Gavin Grimm, a transgender male, from using the same bathrooms as other boys. In June 2021, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But in post-Roe v. Wade America, legal precedents are nothing if not precarious.

The Hanover School Board’s intransigence in complying with the law led to a December 2021 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on behalf of the parents of five transgender students.

Tuesday, a coalition of advocacy groups in Virginia spoke out against the proposed policy.

“This is not just about bathrooms or locker rooms. It’s about the right of transgender students to exist in public spaces without having to justify or explain themselves,” said Breanna Diaz, policy and legislative counsel at the ACLU of Virginia.

Jamie Nolan, co-executive director of Side By Side VA, said trans and nonbinary students overwhelmingly experience hostile learning environments “simply by walking through the doors of our schools. This invasive and discriminatory policy would have Hanover double down by institutionalizing an environment that all students are not welcomed to learn and participate in.”

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, said the Hanover School Board’s “unnecessary and discriminatory policy will lead to more harm for transgender and non-binary students in Hanover public schools.

“The School Board can send a message that they truly value and support transgender and non-binary students by ceasing engagement with Alliance Defending Freedom and rejecting the policy when they meet again in September,” she said.

Good luck with that.

This School Board is more intent on doubling down on discrimination and winning the culture wars than providing a safe and nurturing environment for all of its students.

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW


Related to this story

The proposed policy would require transgender students and their guardians to submit a written request to school administration asking for access to restrooms, locker rooms or changing facilities that align with the students’ gender identities.

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