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ACLU lawsuits seek to overturn Virginia transgender model policies

Gov. Glenn Youngkin arrives at the Virginia Executive Mansion
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Gov. Glenn Youngkin arrives at the Virginia Executive Mansion on Monday, November 27, 2023 at the Virginia State Capital in Richmond, Virginia.

The suits were filed on behalf of two transgender students in York and Hanover counties.

The ACLU of Virginia filed two lawsuits against the state Department of Education on Thursday, asking the courts to throw out Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s policies on the treatment of transgender students and rule that school districts are not required to follow them.

Youngkin's policies roll back many accommodations for transgender students urged by the previous Democratic administration, including allowing teachers and students to refer to a transgender student by the name and pronouns associated with their sex assigned at birth. They also call for school systems’ sports teams to be organized by the sex assigned at birth, meaning that transgender girls would be unable to participate on girls’ sports teams.

The legal challenges in Virginia come at a time when a wave of new restrictions on transgender and nonbinary students have been put in place in Republican states. At least 10 states have enacted laws prohibiting or restricting students from using pronouns or names that don't match their sex assigned at birth.

Youngkin has said the new policies in Virginia are aimed at giving parents a greater say in how their children are treated at school. But opponents argue that the policies violate the law by codifying discrimination against transgender students.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of two transgender students: one, a high school student in York County, the other, a middle school student in Hanover County. The students are not named in the lawsuits.

In the York student's case, at least one teacher refused to address the student by her correct first name, that lawsuit alleges.

The Hanover student was not allowed to participate on a girls' sports team, according to that lawsuit. The complaint said that even though she successfully qualified during tryouts and her parents provided requested documentation, the school board voted to exclude her from the team, citing the model policies.

"When you look at the ways that [the Virginia Department of Education's] model policies are hurting transgender and nonbinary students like our clients, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their authors were purposefully trying to erase gender-nonconforming students from the classroom,” Andrew Ewalt, a private attorney who represents the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

A state law passed in 2020 required the state to develop model regulations and county school boards to adopt them, but it did not include an enforcement mechanism.

Model policies developed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration were praised by advocates for transgender students, but most school boards did not adopt them. At the time, the Department of Education told school districts failing to comply that they assumed all legal risks for noncompliance.

Youngkin and Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares have said school boards must adopt the new rules, but they have drawn mixed compliance. Some school boards with conservative majorities have adopted the policies, while some liberal-leaning school boards, especially in Northern Virginia, have resisted.

Macaulay Porter, Youngkin's deputy communications director, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuits.

Katherine Goff, a spokesperson for the York County School Division, declined to comment, saying the division has not received a copy of the lawsuit and has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Chris Whitley, assistant superintendent of community engagement and legislative affairs for Hanover County Public Schools, also declined to comment.

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