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Virginia Judge Dismisses Challenge to Transgender Student Policies

A high school hallway lined with lockers
A law passed by the General Assembly in 2020 mandated local school boards pass new, evidence-based policies focused on transgender students by the start of the coming school year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A circuit court judge in Lynchburg tossed out a legal challenge to policies designed to protect transgender students on Tuesday. But a broader battle over the policies is likely to continue as school boards decide how to implement the protections or whether to forgo them entirely in defiance of a law passed last year.

That law mandated local school boards pass new, evidence-based policies focused on transgender students by the start of the coming school year. That includes policies on how schools should respect their gender identity, prevent bullying, and determine sex-based participation in school activites. Studies show transgender students face higher rates of bullying and harassment at school.

In March, the Virginia Department of Education published model policies for school boards to help them come up with rules that comply with the law. The law requires local policies to be “consistent with but may be more comprehensive” than the state guidance.

The Christian Action Network, Family Foundation and Founding Freedom Law Center challenged the state’s model guidance, arguing it was actually enforceable regulation. 

Judge Frederick Watson disagreed, saying it was clear the model policies are guidance to school boards and that the groups lacked standing given they were not the state’s intended audience. 

The policies have become a hot button issue at school board meetings this summer. At least one school board, in rural Russell County, rejected the state’s model. The Family Foundation is encouraging others to follow suit, characterizing Watson’s verdict as proof that the policies are optional. They say the policies infringe on teachers’ and students’ First Amendment rights, among other objections.

A lawyer with Attorney General Mark Herring’s office told the court that school districts that don’t comply with the new rules will not lose state funding over that decision, according to Courthouse News.

Jack Preis, associate dean of University of Richmond’s School of Law, said the local decisions on how to implement the policies -- or ignore them -- will almost certainly invite more legal challenges that could quickly make their way through the court system. Parents of trans students could decide to sue if they feel the policies are not living up to the code, or teachers could sue if they feel their first amendment rights are being violated by a requirement to use a student’s chosen pronouns.

“What ultimately will happen in in this sort of realm is that the Supreme Court of Virginia will announce its own intepretation of what the state statutes require with regard to transgender students,” Preis said.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, said the policies will create safer classrooms and reduce bullying, discrimination, and harassment. 

“It’s imperative school boards adopt these policies as soon as possible because the lives of transgender students are at risk,” they said in a statement.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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