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Hanover school board approves controversial bathroom access policy

People seated holding signs
A March meeting of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors drew numerous people both in favor of and opposed to state model policies regarding the treatment of transgender students. On Tuesday, the county's school board adopted a bathroom access policy that is not in line with the state's. (File photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Hanover County School Board voted last night to approve a controversial policy gatekeeping transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

The policy requires transgender students to submit written requests to use facilities that align with their gender identity and gives the school board final say on approving or denying the requests.

The newly approved policy also states that an array of materials — including a student’s disciplinary or criminal records — could be included in a review of the request. An attempt from board member Bob Hundley to remove that specific language failed.

Before the vote on Tuesday, Equality Virginia hosted a press conference during which a number of community members voiced their opposition to the policy. Grace, a Hanover County student who is transgender, called it a “disgustingly invasive” policy.

“Transgender and nonbinary students just want to use the bathroom. … We go to school like every other kid, we study like every other kid, and we are put through multiple different steps and jumps to use the bathroom. We need basic human functions and abilities. We're kids,” Grace said. “By definition bullying is when you target someone and repetitively make their life miserable. This is targeted bullying and it is coming from our school board.”

How will transgender students be impacted?

It’s unclear how schools in Hanover will implement the new policy, which has some parents and students concerned. For example, Kelly Merrill, the mother of a transgender student in the district, said her family received verbal permission from her son’s principal for him to use facilities that align with his gender identity last year.

Board member Bob May told the public before the vote that “if passed, this policy will apply from this point forward. Those who have had a similar request resolved in the past will not be required to complete the process described in this policy.”

Merrill said she asked May after the meeting if prior verbal — not written — permission was enough.

“I was nervous that this new policy would mean, in order for us to get anything in writing, we would have to go through that process,” Merrill said.

She said May told her prior verbal permission was enough, but she’s seeking written approval anyway just in case. But she said she asked May to write that down, so other parents who are in the same boat have clarity.

“I'm not the only one with just verbal permissions,” Merrill said. “You can't just say things and expect people to read your mind.”

Narissa Rahaman, executive director for Equality Virginia, is gravely concerned about students who don’t have permission yet and must navigate this new policy.

“We foresee a lot of trans and nonbinary students opting not to use the restroom or access locker rooms that align with their gender identity, and this will have a direct impact on how they're able to show up at school,” Ramadan said. “It’ll only send them backwards in terms of how they’re able to fully participate in school.”

The public debate about transgender students’ bathroom access in Hanover County has been going on for over a year now. A 2020 state law required local school boards to adopt policies regarding the treatment of transgender students in line with model policies developed by the state Department of Education, but conservative groups sued.

By last October, the majority of school districts in Central Virginia had not passed policies that fully aligned with VDOE’s sample policy, including Hanover County. Last November, the Hanover County School Board approved a policy requiring school staff to refer to students by the name and gender they specify, but it rejected a policy that would’ve permitted transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Last December, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Hanover County School Board on behalf of five families over the board’s failure to adopt policies protecting transgender students in accordance with state law. The lawsuit is still pending.

This past spring, the board voted to allow a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom to review policies pertaining to the rights of LGBTQ students in school. ADF is considered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The board’s, John Axelle, invited the group’s input, and he confirmed to VPM News that ADF helped draft the bathroom access policy that was approved Tuesday.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.