When Natasha Sanghvi walked out of Oakton High School in Vienna, Va., she was surprised to see that more than 200 students from the school had also walked out to protest new guidelines from the administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) that would sharply curtail the rights of transgender students in schools.
Sanghvi, 17, said past walkouts at Oakton hadn’t had as much participation. Many of her peers are afraid of what the proposed guidelines could mean, especially because schools have acted as safe spaces for LGBTQ students when their homes have not been, she said.
“A lot of students [are] scared at the prospect of losing that — the space where they can be themselves and express themselves freely,” said Sanghvi, a senior.
Like Sanghvi, thousands of Virginia students at more than 90 schools across the state participated in walkouts Tuesday in opposition to the proposed guidelines.
The walkouts, organized by the Pride Liberation Project, a statewide LGBTQ youth advocacy group, were held throughout the day, with the last campuses holding their demonstrations just before dismissing for the day. “These revised guidelines will only hurt students in a time when students are facing unparalleled mental health challenges, and are a cruel attempt to politicize the existence of LGBTQIA+ students for political gain,” the group said in a statement.
The draft policy released Sept. 16 by the state education department would require transgender students to use school facilities and programs matching their “biological sex.” Parents would have to give approval for teachers and other staff members to refer to students by a different name or pronoun at school, and families would have to provide legal documentation to change a student’s name and gender on official school records.
Laura Truong, 16, helped lead more than 50 students out of Falls Church High School in Fairfax County. Some of Truong’s friends are genderqueer or gender nonconforming and already feel unsafe, but the Youngkin administration’s proposed guidelines “are only enforcing this kind of feeling,” she said.
“We want our school districts to stand up for us and support us and say that they’ll reject these guidelines,” Truong said.
Youngkin and supporters of the policy have said it would ensure that parents are involved in this important process and restore parental rights over their children’s education.
“The guidelines make it clear that when parents are part of the process, schools will accommodate the requests of children and their families. Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation,” said a statement from Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter on Tuesday. “While students exercise their free speech today, we’d note that these policies state that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment. ”
But students like Catherine Knecht said Youngkin is using “this cover of parental rights to push a political agenda” through schools. The main purpose of schools is to educate and keep students safe, she said, and “politics do not have to be a part of that.”
Knecht, 17, joined roughly 200 students who walked out of Langley High School in McLean on Tuesday morning. Three students from the high school spoke about their opposition to the guidelines as part of the demonstration, which lasted about 20 minutes, she said. Then the students headed back into the classroom.
By 11 a.m., more than 1,000 students had walked out of classes for protests, said a post by the Pride Liberation Project. Videos and images posted on social media showed students at various schools holding rainbow flags and signs, and chanting “Protect trans youth” and “Trans rights are human rights.”
Knecht, who is queer, said the guidelines are “prioritizing the parents’ will over the child.” She added that many of her classmates are being raised in negative — even abusive — situations that she believes could be worsened if the draft guidelines take effect.
The Pride Liberation Project is calling for the state Department of Education to revoke its policy and for local school boards “to affirm their commitment to protect all students by rejecting these bigoted proposed guidelines,” its statement said.
The guidelines are set to take effect after a 30-day public comment period that began Monday. More than 20,000 comments have been submitted to the education department.
Supporters lauded the guidelines as “giving rights back to parents” and ensuring that “parents know what’s going on” in their students’ schools. Opponents criticized the proposals as “harmful” to transgender students and said they amount to “bullying.”
The public comment session will close Oct. 26. Education department staffers will review the comments and recommend any edits to the draft, agency spokesman Charles Pyle said.
The draft guidelines will become official once approved by the state superintendent.
The guidelines probably will face legal challenges, experts have said. Some opponents have said the policy violates the Virginia Human Rights Act, which protects individuals in public settings, including schools, from discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
A Washington Post survey of all state school districts found that a few in Northern Virginia appear prepared to challenge the policy; school leaders in many other parts of the state seem likely to implement it, and Culpeper County schools and other districts say their policies already align with Youngkin’s rules.
The new policy reverses a state order enacted two years ago by Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Northam’s policy mandated that transgender students be granted access to restrooms, locker rooms, changing facilities and school programs that match their gender identity. It also required schools and teachers to accept and use students’ gender pronouns and identities.
After Sanghvi arrived home, she kept thinking about the number of students who demonstrated at Oakton on Tuesday. She said it was emblematic that even if the guidelines are approved and LGBTQ students lose support from school administrators and teachers, “they have students that will be behind them every step of the way.”