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Virginia students stage walkouts to protest Youngkin’s proposed policies on trans students

Students stand outside Open High School to protest the state's proposed guidance on trans students.
Crixell Matthews
Students at Open High School stage a walkout to protest the state's proposed guidance around trans children in schools. About one hundred similar events were planned across the commonwealth. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Students from multiple Virginia schools walked out of classes Tuesday to protest the draft policies of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration regarding the treatment of transgender students. The proposed policies have  drawn criticism from lawmakers, legal experts, and on Tuesday, the White House.

Student organizers planned about 100 walkouts at schools around the commonwealth. 

Cadence Snopik, a 17-year-old senior at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, helped organize a walkout at their school. Snopik identifies as genderqueer and said the draft guidance makes them feel sad and outraged.

“My identity is not a political pawn to Governor Youngkin, and it should not be used as such,” Snopik told VPM News. “As a genderqueer individual who has worked very hard with myself to confirm my identity, it's hard to see someone mark that as completely invalid.”

The portion of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s policy that most upset Snopik, they said, was language stating that “[p]arents must be informed and given an opportunity to object before counseling services pertaining to gender are given.”

Snopik said that in light of the guidance, they’re trying to “build a sense of community around our trans and genderqueer students, and let them know that even though these guidelines might make them feel completely invalid in their identity, they are valid, they are safe here. And we're here to support them.”

The walkouts come one day after the 30-day public comment period on the proposal opened, with many students urging classmates to write in. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 20,000 comments had been submitted. 

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in an interview that her staff is still considering ways to sift through the feedback. She said that while the comments are not “a Twitter poll” designed to weigh the policy’s overall popularity, the Virginia Department of Education will consider “substantive” comments as it moves forward with the proposal.

She also encouraged online commenters to read the policy, which she said had two broad themes: “the dignity and safety of every single student in school” and “placing parents at the center of decision making.” 

Faced with what Balow described as a potentially unprecedented level of comments, VDOE is considering unspecified technology that would allow them to be filtered and sorted. She noted her office made changes to a previous policy — related to sexually explicit materials in the classroom — based on “substantive” comments, and could do the same here. But she warned against treating the comments as a referendum on the policy’s popularity.

“I want to be really clear — this is not a Twitter poll,” Balow said. “And we're not looking for some kind of [vote, like], ‘We have 50 comments that say this and 20 comments that say this, therefore, we're going to make a policy decision based on the majority of people who responded. That's just not the way that public comment works.” 

State law requires the proposal to go through a 30-day comment period. If a commenter objects to the legality of the model policies, state officials are required to delay implementing the proposal for another 30 days and post a response to the criticism online or by certified mail.  

‘Basic respect and dignity’

Kayden Peddicord is a 16-year-old junior who identifies as nonbinary. He helped organize an afternoon walkout at Henrico High School, which was closed to press.

“We are children who are now having to tell adults how to treat people with basic respect and dignity,” Peddicord said at a separate, earlier demonstration against Youngkin’s proposal. “We are learning that people in power do not have our backs.”

Not all students who wanted to walk out had the cooperation of their school leadership, and several walkouts weren’t open to the press.

A planned walkout at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County was shut down by school officials, and a handful of students from Chesterfield’s Midlothian High School walked out before the principal came outside and asked reporters to leave.

Even if their school district doesn’t adopt the draft policies, student-organizer Cameron Skinner is worried about students in other districts. 

“This will put a lot of other people in danger and only increase the already-high transgender suicide rate,” said Skinner, who organized the Midlothian High School walkout.  

Seventeen-year-old Patterson Summers attended the walkout at Midlothian High School and said, “what bothers me mostly [about the guidance] is the lack of trust in students because the policy hides behind this vague idea of parental rights. But in reality, it's just forcing the governor's idea of what students should be on to them,” Summers said. 

A walkout at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg was also shut down, but students decided to hold a day of silence and a “blackout” instead. They wore black, remained silent and ate lunch together outside.

Lu Elliott, a 17-year-old senior at the school, said students got a firm “no” when making a request to school officials to hold the walkout. She helped organize the blackout instead because she wanted to show support for her transgender friends.

“A lot of them were saying, ‘[If Youngkin’s guidance is adopted], I could get kicked out [of my house],’” Elliott said. “One person told me they think they will be disowned if it happens. And they really aren’t in a position where they can stand up for themselves without their parents finding out. So, I decided to kind of take that initiative for them.”

Meanwhile, a crowd of students outside Richmond’s Open High School chanted “No Glenn!” and applauded each other as multiple students — including 17-year-old Talib Gill — took turns speaking. 

“We should already be born with these rights … and to think that we’re stepping backwards as a society continually … . It’s so ridiculous,” Gill said. “It’s honestly so tiring, and I am sick of it. Because what we’re not going to do is sit here and let the white man control us. It is ridiculous. And I’m over it. We’re all over it.” 

Felix Hedberg, an Open High School student who helped organize the walkout to support her friends, was happy with the turnout Tuesday.

“I’m very proud to see my school come out like this,” Hedberg said. “I think it’s really beautiful when we all show up for each other. And I think that’s what people in power don’t want to see.

Additional reporting for this story was contributed by Ben Paviour

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