Gordon talks next steps for model policy revisions in Suffolk Schools

Published 8:20 am Tuesday, November 21, 2023

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Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III detailed the next steps for the much discussed SPS transgender policy update. Following the approval of the Superintendent’s Model Policy during the Thursday, Nov. 9 School Board meeting, Gordon says that the policy changes went into effect “immediately after the board meeting.” Likewise, he says that the next steps are “administrative.”

“Mainly, the next steps are just administrative where we had to update our regulations and make the tweaks to the policy based on the adjustments from what we had completed in 2021 to make sure that our schools have those updated forms,” Gordon said. “And then just to really, to be honest, just to put this whole elongated discussion behind us.” 

Last updated on Aug. 12, 2021, the policy previously stated that “Each school in Suffolk Public Schools will make reasonably available, with available resources, guidance and counseling services to all students as provided in 8VAC20-620-10 and pursuant to parental notification requirements therein, including that, no student will be required to participate in any counseling program to which the student’s parent object. Except with regard to eligible students, parents must be informed and given an opportunity to object before counseling services pertaining to gender are given.” 

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The updates now include: “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.”

Also included: “All students are entitled to have access to restrooms, locker rooms, and changing facilities that are sanitary, safe, and adequate, so that they can comfortably and fully engage in their school programs and activities. Students should be allowed to use the facility that corresponds to their gender identity. While some students will want that access, others may want alternatives that afford more privacy. Taking into account existing school facilities, administrators should take steps to designate gender-inclusive or single-user restrooms commensurate with the size of the school. When schools have available gender-inclusive or single-user restrooms or private changing areas, these restrooms or areas should be accessible to all students without special codes or keys. Access to facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to a student’s gender identity will be available to all students. Upon request, single-user or gender-inclusive facilities or other reasonable alternatives will be available to any student seeking privacy.”

Other updates would focus on definitions, nondiscrimination compliance, counseling service availability, name and pronoun usage and more. When asked how far the policy changes will go, Gordon said it’s “just secondary.”

“Everything at the elementary level, students still have to be able to identify with their gender that they were born with. And even though some of those conversations do begin to happen, nothing is really being done, and I think one of the main benefits is, from the stuff that we’ve already had in place for the last two or three years, having students basically claim or state what their gender is, for at least six months, has always been a key cog for us,” Gordon said. “This really helps out with any situations of gender fluidity and students may be switching or changing and not giving their teachers or administrators or their counselors an opportunity to be aware, and also with the parent feedback and parent input, as well as any type of medical documentation that we receive, that also allows that process to kind of be concrete before any adjustments need to be made.”

On why six months was the chosen mark, Gordon said it was about wanting something concrete when the policy was created in 2021.

“Mr. [Wendell] Waller, our school board attorney, had some conversations with some of our medical folks. We also talked with our coordinator of school counseling and it’s really just to kind of protect everyone involved,” Gordon said. “I don’t think there was a medical threshold that said, ‘It takes six months for this to happen,’ but we wanted to do it like that because the school year is about nine months long, and we were kind of thinking about two-thirds of the school year.”

Gordon says this allows everyone involved an opportunity to adjust. He also talked about how school counselors are receiving additional resources to support students following the policy changes, including new training measures.

“We have LGBTQ+ groups at all of our high schools and the sponsors of those groups, as well as the administration resources, are coming in everyday. And so part of it is just really just supporting the kid. That’s the main thing,” he said. “It’s not like if a student is suffering from gender dysphoria that a school counselor is going to be the one that’s going to diagnose and treat that. No, that would be a recommendation to a clinical professional. So we have to make sure that we were going to be protecting our staff for documentation purposes.”

Gordon emphasized that the only aspect SPS staff was involved in was developing the plan. He also broke down how counselors work with children who are having any type of mental health issues.

“The referral can come from anywhere. It could come from the teacher, it could come from the school administrator, it can come from the student just walking into the counselor’s office themselves, but then it basically becomes almost a letter layer of confidentiality between what the student is discussing with the counselor and what the counselor can tell us. But the first call is going to be to the parent, the first communication,” Gordon said. “The counselor is also going to take the time to take a look at what’s in the file, and then some recommendations could occur because it’s our job as a school just to be able to provide resources. If it’s Western Tidewater, if it’s a clinical therapist, we do have psychologists that are on staff as well, if it’s potentially adding that layer. But none of those things can happen without the parents’ consent.”

There has been much outcry from parents and the school community regarding safety, namely with school restrooms. Gordon says if there will be any safety measures to prevent any sort of incidents, those measures have already been “in place.” 

“If any student had any type of gender identity questions, part of the conversation that they were having with their school counselor or school administrator is to basically identify what the plan was going to be. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of political ads about people being allowed, you know, biological males going into the female locker room and taking showers. Well, first of all, athletes don’t take showers at school. I can’t remember the last time they did. They weren’t doing it in the 90s when I was in school and in talking to our student-athletes these days, 99% of the kids go home and take a shower. So that was just something that was being used to try to stir up some fear or controversy,” Gordon said. “And in some of our gym classes, kids don’t even have to change clothes to dress out. So, another opportunity of locker rooms not really being an issue. That was mainly for after-school sports, and that’s when you’re working with your coach and the administration to, again, come up with a plan.”

On any final words, Gordon said this:

“Number one, I’m happy that, hopefully, this discussion is over. And number two, I think my other concern is, I think people were trying to use this for their own political gain. And then number three, I think individuals are going to try to find some type of way to get Suffolk Public Schools into court,” he said. “People were citing the Virginia Beach case, and that case was actually what was going to be thrown out anyway. This seems to be the plan here that when individuals don’t get the vote that they want on the School Board, their next solution is, ‘Well we’re just to get him into court,’ and I don’t understand how that helps the school system or helps the school community or the city. Why can’t we just accept what has happened and move on?”

He continued.

“I actually believe that’s a lot easier for some of our kids [than] for adults, but when I took my oath of office, it was my job to make sure I was gonna protect all kids, regardless of socioeconomic, race, or in this case, sexual identity. Why is this sexual identity piece such a threat where socioeconomic wasn’t a threat? There’s really no difference,” Gordon said. “If a kid is different, a kid is different, but you’re still supposed to do whatever you can to support that student regardless. If our kid is going to accept it, why can’t we as adults who have the full development brains and that was mentioned so many times, why can’t we as adults show and model how that acceptance is supposed to look?”