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Local school districts react to model policy proposal around transgender students

Jason Kamras smiles while at a Democratic event in 2019.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said the new model policies took him by surprise. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Some Central Virginia school officials are speaking out against new model policies from the Virginia Department of Education that, if enacted by local school boards, would direct the treatment of transgender students. 

Officially titled the “2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools,” the new guidelines are made to satisfy the requirements of a 2020 law. VDOE officials also rescinded 2021 guidance associated with that law. 

The new guidance, released late last week by the administration of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, puts an emphasis on the rights of parents to direct their children’s upbringing. It also said that the “2021 Model Policies promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools.” 

Richmond Public Schools adopted the 2021 model policies in summer of that year, when school districts were required to do so. Only 10% of Virginia schools took up the policies written by the administration of then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, according to Equality Virginia. The 2020 law does not include an enforcement mechanism. 

“Our schools really do need to be places where kids feel welcome and included for whoever they are, however they define themselves,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras.  

He said the 2021 model policies do that by allowing students to make decisions on what name, pronouns and bathrooms they want to use, based on their own gender identity. 

Kamras said Monday that he’s concerned the new proposed guidance will make the school day difficult for trans and nonbinary students and exacerbate already high rates of bullying and suicide in those demographics. 

Kamras also said the proposal took him by surprise. 

“We didn’t receive any kind of official communication from the VDOE — as best as I know,” Kamras told VPM News. 

The 2021 guidance defines “transgender” as a “self-identifying term that describes a person whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth.” 

The new model policies define “transgender student” as a student “whose parent has requested in writing, due to their child’s persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs with his or her sex, that their child be so identified while at school.” 

The new policy also would require written parental approval for a student to be referred to with pronouns corresponding to their gender identity. The same goes for the use of bathrooms, involvement in sports and more — unless the student is 18 or older. 

A 30-day comment period on the proposal begins Sept. 26 on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall website. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has final approval of the plan. 

Chesterfield County Public Schools also adopted the state’s 2021 model policies. School board member Dot Heffron said, apart from an initial backlash, the policy has not created controversy. 

“I truly haven’t heard anything negative or positive, it’s all just been very — like I said, it’s almost a nonissue,” Heffron said. 

She said the new model policy proposal is a frustrating development after a difficult few years for students, teachers and parents amid the pandemic 

“It’s more politicizing of our schools and our kids,” Heffron said. 

Heffron said CCPS legal counsel is reviewing the new proposal, so it’s unclear what changes the board would have to make to be in compliance with the 2020 law. 

Kamras acknowledged that it would be the school board’s decision to accept, reject or modify the policies. “My counsel to the school board would be to object to this model policy as vociferously as we possibly can to prevent its implementation,” he said. 

Representatives for the Hanover County School Board, which passed a restrictive bathroom access policy last month, did not respond to a request for comment by the end of Monday.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.