SPS transgender policy update sparks debate at committee meeting

Published 8:21 pm Monday, August 7, 2023

Proposed updates to Suffolk Public Schools’ transgender policies met with questions and concerns about language on the role of school officials, parents and students during a special meeting of the Policy Review Committee.

The School Board committee got its first chance to review the updates proposed by Superintendent John B. Gordon III, Ph.D., designed to bring the district policies inline with the state’s new model policy

Meeting Monday, Aug. 7 at Curtis R. Milteer Sr. Recreational Center, Policy Review Committee members Judith Brooks-Buck, Phyllis Byrum and Dawn Marie Brittingham of the Nansemond, Whaleyville and Holy Neck boroughs reviewed the proposed update with Gordon and School Board Attorney Wendell Waller.


Email newsletter signup

Last updated on Aug.12, 2021, the current update focuses on definitions, nondiscrimination compliance, counseling service availability, name and pronoun usage and more.

“We’re going to understand that we’re going to keep parents involved in what we’re trying to do, however, there has to be some level of being able to preserve the students’ rights. Especially if what the student feels comfortable with or the student’s rights conflicts with the parents wants,” Gordon told the committee. “That’s the challenge that we were having and also some of the questions that some of my colleagues posed during the webinar.”

Gordon reviewed suggested updates in a section meant to balance all of these rights.

The proposed updates would say: “Each school in Suffolk Public Schools will make reasonably available, with available resources, guidance and counseling services to all students as provided in 8-VAC20-620-10. Students may participate in counseling services that may benefit the student’s overall well-being. Students will be required to provide signed parental consent before counseling services are offered, unless Suffolk Public Schools is of the opinion that to require parental consent would pose a danger to the student’s health and mental wellness. To the extent possible, parents will be given the opportunity to object before counseling services pertaining to gender are given.” 

Brittingham expressed her concerns with the changes.

“This is the bare minimum of compliance,” Brittingham said. “We can develop more strict adherence to the model, but we shouldn’t loosen the framework.”

As Gordon provided details of possible changes to the section that focuses on the health and mental wellness of students, Brooks-Buck reflected on an incident that led to the proposed wording.

“We did have an attempted suicide, which shaped some of our context as we looked at this. Because of an incident that we had, we looked at this differently,” Brooks-Buck said. “I don’t think there’s anyone here – most of us being parents and those who have been parents have been responsible for children – want to deny any parents rights.”

Brooks-Buck stressed that this is only a policy review and that the committee would not vote on anything. 

However, Brittingham followed up on her concerns with this section.

“Who determines if services may benefit a student’s well-being? Who makes that determination? Because that seems really subjective to me,” Brittingham asked. “How is SPS going to determine if a student is in danger by parental consent? That’s also really subjective.”

Gordon explained this would be the role of the student counselor.

“They’re going to be the person, 90% of the time, going to determine what is being shared with them is either beneficial for the student or potentially pose a danger,” he said.

While counselors are trained in many different capacities, Brittingham said she believes they are not trained specifically to deal with gender identity issues. 

Gordon followed up saying that instead of counselors being the “end-all, be-all,” they would collect the information and then meet with the administrators, the school psychologist and school social worker.

“It has to be a decision based on what those experts in the field would recommend. And that can also include, based on what the student says, have another immediate conversation with the parent,” Gordon said. “We’re not taking that part out, but what you have to understand is each student should be able to have someone they can go to in their schools to have this conversation – if this conversation itself or if their gender identity is causing an issue for the student.”

Brittingham responded telling Gordon they would “have to agree to disagree.”

“Now you are trying to be a parent and that is not the job of Suffolk Public Schools,” she said. “It is not our job to step into this area and interfere. I think the way we need to set this up is we always need to consider parents first, because the children belong to the parents OK? They are their primary educators and I know that is probably a concept that is new and interesting to think about, but they come to us in a partnership.”

Brittingham contended school officials shouldn’t take on the role of a parent.

“When situations like this come up, we should always go to the parent first, because it’s their child,” she said.

Brooks-Buck disagreed, explaining that as part of law, educators and school administrators are to act as “parents” when the children are with them.

“When the children are with us, we are indeed acting as the parent when they are with us. Along with rights come responsibilities,” she said. “If that were the case, when your children are bullied, we wouldn’t be responsible.”

Brooks-Buck said if they didn’t take responsibility they could simply say that not to worry and wait on the parents.

“We can’t do that. We can’t abdicate our responsibility,” she said. “When they come to school with us, we are responsible if they feel comfortable telling us that there is an issue.

As an example, Brooks-Buck offered a scenario involving an abused child.

“If a child comes to us for example and says to us, ‘I’ve been abused,’ we don’t say, ‘Let me call your parent and tell them you said you’ve been abused at home.’” she said. “We have to take on that responsibility. School counselors are licensed and trained to work with children — they must be in order to be in a public school.”

Near the end of the meeting, Brittingham suggested a public hearing be held so that families can hear what is in the proposed update. 

Brooks-Buck explained that while the board will vote on the policy in 60 days, the public will have the opportunity to offer comments.

“I’m sure that anybody who’s interested in coming and talking can come to the board and sign up to speak. Either on the agenda items, if we put it on the agenda, or non agenda items they can speak,” Brooks-Buck explained, adding they can even address it at the meeting this Thursday, Aug. 10.


Editor’s note: Updated first quote at 1:56 p.m., Tuesday, August 8 to reflect accuracy.