Lawsuit targets mandatory transgender student policies for Virginia schools

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A lawsuit is trying to force the Virginia Department of Education to reconsider its new model policy for the treatment of transgender students in public schools.

The regulations were finalized earlier this month after the agency reviewed more than 9,000 public comments submitted on the issue.

To comply with a new state law, local school boards must adopt policies consistent with VDOE’s standards no later than the 2021-2022 school year. Districts may also adopt more comprehensive policies if they choose to.

The lawsuit from Founding Freedoms Law Center argues the state rushed to finalize its guidance without sufficiently responding to various legal concerns raised during the public comment period. FFLC Attorney Jim Davis said VDOE failed to follow regulatory procedures required by law.

“These policies issued by the department have serious constitutional and statutory violations,” Davis said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We’re asking the court to send these policies back to the department to reconsider them and hopefully avoid expensive lawsuits.”

For example, the lawsuit argues parents have a fundamental right to control the upbringing and education of their child. It says the model policy violates this by instructing school staff to keep a student’s gender identity private from parents who may not support their transition.

“The Constitution of Virginia ensures that fundamental right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs. It does not get erased simply because the state of Virginia chooses to dismiss those rights to fulfill its own ideological agenda,” said Victoria Cobb, President of The Family Foundation.

Anthony Belotti played a role in crafting the state’s regulations as a student representative. Belotti came out as trans while in high school in Stafford, Virginia and is currently a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It would’ve been life changing for me,” Belotti said when asked how these regulations would’ve impacted their public school experience. “I attempted suicide when I was 16 and a lot of that had to do with the way I was being treated by other people.” 

Belotti said it’s important that schools don’t out trans students before they’re ready to tell their parents.

“You can imagine how for some people that could get violent and lead to homelessness,” Belotti said. “Supporting trans student saves their lives and if the only way to do that is to have that support at school and not at home then that is what needs to happen.”

The lawsuit also points to possible first amendment violations.

The model policy directs schools to eliminate or reduce the practice of segregating students by gender to the extent possible. “Access to facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to a student’s gender identity shall be available to all students,” it reads.

Hanover mother Sarah Via said that’s a violation of religious freedom and her daughter’s right to privacy.

“This has occurred in the Hanover County public schools already,” Via said. “The girls were forced to undress in front of a biological male against their will. They feel as if the school system and trusted adults failed them.” 

“Parents and concerned members of the community need to raise their voices to protect our children from predators,” echoed Kristen Allen with the Arlington Parent Coalition.

Belotti said they used the men’s bathrooms for years without school staff noticing. They said using gender-neutral bathrooms can be an alienating experience.

“Only trans students were using those for the most part so I was having to out myself as trans every time I was seen there,” they said. “It creates an environment where students can more easily be harassed.”

Opponents say the state’s policy is also at odds with freedom of speech. That’s because it requires the use of pronouns associated with a student’s gender identity in schools. The standards clearly define a regular refusal to do so as discrimination.

“Our language is all about respecting people and their identities,” Belotti said. “I had teachers tell me that they would refuse to use those pronouns or they would refuse to use a name my mother didn’t give me.”

VDOE Spokesperson Ken Blackstone said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit but they are not commenting at this time.

Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck issued the following statement:

“We know that Virginia LGBTQ students, specifically transgender youth, face significantly higher rates of discrimination and harassment from not only their peers, but school staff as well. The Virginia Department of Education’s guidance is an important step in the right direction of making schools more inclusive so every child feels safe, welcomed and valued. Unfortunately, this lawsuit only adds to the transphobia and harmful misconceptions many transgender youth already face.”

Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck

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