Support the Guidance for Safe & Equal Learning Environment
February 3, 2021
Dr. Samantha Hollins
Virginia Department of Education
101 N. 14th Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Dear Assistant Superintendent Hollins,
I am writing on behalf of Equality Virginia (EV), the leading advocacy organization in Virginia seeking equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. EV strongly supports the Virginia Department of Education’s Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools.
Equality Virginia believes that all students have the right to a learning environment that is safe, inclusive, and affirming, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. We are working alongside youth, families, and local and state organizations across the Commonwealth to make sure LGBTQ students, particularly transgender and non-binary students, can learn and thrive.
We know that transgender and non-binary youth face unique barriers to an equal learning environment in K-12 schools in Virginia. Per GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, a staggering 84 percent of transgender youth felt unsafe in school because of their identity, 82 percent said they avoided certain spaces because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, 51 percent missed school because of safety concerns, and 50 percent said they were unable to use the name or pronoun consistent with their gender. Transgender students who face these sorts of victimization are then three times more likely to have missed school in the past month than their peers. GLSEN’s 2017 Virginia Snapshot reports that 62 percent of LGBTQ youth faced verbal harassment and 26 percent faced physical harassment in school. Transgender and non-binary youth of color face even greater levels of bullying, harassment, and assault for not only their sexual orientation or gender identity, but also their racial or ethnic identity.
As long as students are unsafe, fearful, and uncomfortable in their school environment, they cannot focus on learning or sometimes even be physically present. This demonstrates the urgent need for affirming model policies for school boards to adopt on the treatment of transgender and non-binary students. Per existing state and federal law, all students have the right to an equal education and this guidance can go a long way towards making that a reality in K-12 schools across Virginia.
On this basis, Equality Virginia supports this guidance, while recommending a few minor changes below.
We recommend the adoption of all of the clarifications, additions, removals, and edits enumerated in GLSEN’s public comment submitted by Aaron Ridings, Director of Public Policy, on February 2, 2021 to the Virginia Department of Education.
Additionally, EV recommends the following changes under various sections:
On page 12, in the model policy’s first paragraph, we recommend replacing “gender assigned at birth” with “sex assigned at birth.” This aligns with the terminology the document uses elsewhere and aligns with standard usage.
On page 12, we suggest rewording the third and fourth sentences in the first paragraph as follows: “Many transgender students will adopt gender pronouns typically associated with their gender identity. For example, most transgender female students will use she/her/hers pronouns, while most transgender male students will use he/him/his pronouns. There is somewhat less of a common pattern of pronoun usage among different non-binary students. Non-binary students, as well as transgender students, may use gendered pronouns like she/her/hers or he/him/his, use gender neutral pronouns like they/them/theirs or ze/hir/hirs, use multiple sets of pronouns interchangeably (e.g. he/him/his and they/them/theirs), or use their name in place of any pronoun.”
On page 12, we recommend these edits to the first paragraph under the “Student Identification” heading:
Original text: “A student is considered transgender if, at school, the student consistently asserts a gender identity different from the sex assigned at birth. This should involve more than a casual declaration of gender identity, but it does not necessarily require any substantiating evidence nor any required minimum duration of expressed gender identity, and expression of gender identity can present differently from student to student.
Recommended text: “A student is considered transgender if, at school, the student asserts a gender identity different from the sex assigned at birth, unless there is a credible basis that the student is claiming a transgender identity for an improper purpose. In the unlikely event that a student appears to be asserting a transgender identity for an improper purpose, schools should allow the student an opportunity respond to that concern, for example, by permitting the student to provide substantiating evidence to support their request to be treated consistent with their gender identity.”
On page 13:
Original text: “Schools shall allow students to assert a name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence. School staff shall, at the request of a student or parent, address the student using the asserted name and pronoun that correspond to their gender identity.
Recommended text: “Schools shall allow students to use a name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence. School staff shall, at the request of a student or parent, address the student using the name and pronoun that correspond to their gender identity.”
Access to Activities and Facilities
On page 17, in the model policy’s first paragraph’s first sentence, we recommend striking “reduce.” The phrase “to the extent possible” already provides adequate flexibility and “reduce” is an unclear metric.
On page 18, in the second paragraph of the model policy, we recommend adding “or” between “single user” and “gender-inclusive.” Since the comma usage is ambiguous, this clarifies that both options can be appropriate, not just single user facilities labelled as gender-inclusive.
On page 19, we recommend the following paragraph be added to the model policy: “For staff who already have professional development requirements, the professional development that they undertake within a year’s period should include topics relating to LGBTQ+ students, including safety and support for LGBTQ+ students. This can be interwoven with other topics or as a distinct topic.”
All staff who interact with students should have some familiarity with how to support LGBTQ students given their specific issues in schools as a vulnerable population.
In conclusion, EV strongly supports the model policy, and we urge the incorporation of our suggestions for the adoption of this necessary guidance.
Thank you for your work to fully implement Virginia law to protect the right to a safe and equal learning environment for all Virginia students by crafting these model policies on the treatment of transgender youth. Please reach out to Vee Lamneck, Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss our recommendations.