Editorial – Back and forth on transgender rules

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Elections have consequences, it’s been said. Or, depending on one’s perspective, rewards.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has rolled back major changes in Virginia public schools’ accommodation of transgender students. Those changes, including a 2020 state law requiring school districts to adopt the state Department of Education’s “model” policy or something stronger, gave power to students themselves to decide, for example, which bathroom to use and what pronoun they prefer to be called.

While area school districts, including Suffolk, mostly fell in line with the state law, many local schools across the state simply ignored the law. Then came the 2021 gubernatorial election, in which parental rights on controversial social policies in schools became one of the flashpoints that fueled Youngkin’s stunning win over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

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As often happens in a changing society, activists got ahead of public sentiment, much less consensus, and the then-Democratic executive and legislative branches codified controversial changes. Voters, when given the opportunity, pushed back, in this case siding with Youngkin when he said that parents still should have a voice in school policies on cultural issues like transgender policy and social justice initiatives.

The state Department of Education last week released a revised policy that vows to protect transgender students from bullying and other forms of harassment and discrimination but mostly puts decision-making on things like pronouns and bathroom usage back in the hands of their parents.

The “Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools” says local school boards must adopt a slate of new policies for the treatment of transgender students. The document says that “schools should attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”

The Virginia Mercury reports that the new policies require parental approval for any changes to students’ “names, nicknames, and/or pronouns,” direct schools to keep parents “informed about their children’s well-being,” specify that student participation in activities and athletics shall be based on sex and state that “students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

Instead of a new, radically different directive every time a new party is in power (in other words, every two to four years in Virginia), we’d prefer to put the power for sensitive policymaking entirely in the hands of local school boards, which are most directly accountable to the communities they serve. Otherwise, schools will become mere pawns in a partisan power struggle, distracted from their core mission of educating students.