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Fairfax schools adopt updated guidelines to protect transgender students at meeting that drew dueling protests

Chantilly High School tennis coach Karen Kegerreis peeks into the bus before lowering the handicap lift to help unload a student at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va., in 2012.
Chantilly High School tennis coach Karen Kegerreis peeks into the bus before lowering the handicap lift to help unload a student at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va., in 2012. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In a win for transgender students and advocates, Virginia’s largest public school system has adopted guidelines granting children access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities and requiring school staffers to address transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns.

The school board of Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia voted unanimously Thursday night to approve a revised version of its “Student Rights and Responsibilities” document, which outlines expectations for student behavior. The new rules also mandate that all students receive “safe and equitable access to all school . . . facilities and activities” and that students have “the right to non-disclosure of gender identity and/or sexual orientation.”

Moreover, the guidelines state that internal, school-generated lists of students — such as in the honor roll, yearbooks and school newspapers — must identify transgender children by their preferred names and pronouns. The new rules mark the first time the document has ever explicitly affirmed rights and protections for transgender students, said Karl Frisch, the first openly LGBTQ member of Fairfax’s school board.

“This was the right thing to do [and] long overdue,” Frisch said. “But it will not sweep away the pain and hurt transgender and other gender-expansive students have experienced for years at the hands of careless peers or adults who should know better.”

Before the meeting, parents, educators and activists held passionate dueling protests — one against critical race theory and the other in support of Fairfax students generally and transgender rights specifically — that attracted controversy when one protesting parent filmed a Fairfax NAACP leader, Michelle Leete, apparently wishing death to her opponents. Leete wrote in an email Friday that what she meant to say was she hopes her opponents’ ideals die out.

Northern Virginia recently has become a major battleground in America’s culture wars over transgender rights. Research suggests there are about 4,000 transgender youths between ages 13 and 17 in Virginia and shows that transgender youth are far more likely to attempt suicide.

How and why Loudoun County became the face of the nation’s culture wars

Some recent developments have been triumphs for transgender rights supporters. For example, Fairfax adopted its new policy on transgender students in accordance with a 2020 state law requiring that school districts treat transgender students according to their gender identities, in part by permitting these children to use sex-specific facilities and sports teams. And in late June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a high-profile legal battle over the rights of transgender students in Virginia, effectively handing a victory to those who believe transgender students should be able to use bathrooms that match their gender identities.

But a potent backlash is also building — in part from White, Christian, conservative parents, who see the updated treatment of transgender students as infringing on their religious beliefs and forcing teachers to lie to children. Many are also dissatisfied with the idea that transgender female students would be allowed to compete on sports teams, which they argue is unfair to athletes assigned female at birth.

Two conservative groups are suing the Virginia Department of Education to block implementation of the transgender guidelines statewide. And in Loudoun County Public Schools, Fairfax’s neighbor, a Christian teacher recently sued the school system, arguing he should not be forced to call transgender students by their pronouns given his beliefs.

A June school board meeting in Loudoun ended in an arrest after raucous parents — some of whom showed up to protest transgender rights — refused to quiet down.

At Thursday’s meeting in Fairfax, Frisch introduced the vote on the district’s transgender guidelines by referencing the uproar.

“In recent months, school board meetings in neighboring counties have descended into chaos as extremists attempt to deny these students their very existence,” Frisch said. “To the gender-expansive and transgender students and their families who have witnessed these attacks … I am sorry. You deserve much, much better.”

The Fairfax meeting saw its own controversy, however, when parents, educators and activists held dueling protests ahead of the start of the meeting.

Some were there for a “STOP CRT” rally — to fight what they see as the infiltration of critical race theory into schools. The theory is an academic framework that holds racism is systemic and ­perpetuated in present-day American institutions, laws and policies.

Critics say they see the theory’s influence in many schools’ recent efforts to seek more equal academic and disciplinary outcomes and create a welcoming environment for all students by doing things like adding more diverse viewpoints to school curriculums and holding bias trainings for employees. Some parents allege school districts are actually teaching students critical race theory, a charge that school officials throughout Northern Virginia have repeatedly denied.

Amid critical race theory controversy, teachers union chief vows legal action to defend teaching of ‘honest history’

In Fairfax, critical race theory opponents — many of whom are Asian parents — see a particularly noxious manifestation of the theory in the school system’s recent updates to admissions at its flagship magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The revisions, meant to boost diversity by eliminating a $100 application fee and admissions test, led to the most diverse class in the school’s history, but also drove down the percentage of Asian students by a large margin.

Those who support the school system’s equity initiatives and its new guidelines for transgender students showed up for their own rally, meant to offset the STOP CRT event. Leete, one of the speakers, gave a speech that is now drawing heavy criticism.

Videos circulating online show Leete calling the critical race theory opponents “anti-education, ­anti-teacher, anti-equity, anti-
history” and a long string of other negatives ending in, “anti-live-and-let-live people.”

She then added, “Let them die,” generating applause at the time — and later, serious blowback online, especially from conservative voices such as the official account of the Fairfax GOP. In a tweet about Leete’s speech, the county’s GOP committee called her a “hard leftist” spouting “hateful, incendiary rhetoric.”

The speech also drew broader backlash. On Friday evening, the Virginia Parent Teacher Association — for which Leete serves as vice president of training — tweeted out a statement condemning her remarks. The statement called Leete’s comment a “disturbing choice of words” and said “that statement does not reflect the values of Virginia PTA.” The news release also said that Virginia PTA board members will undergo “sensitivity training” over the summer to ensure officials “remain mindful of . . . the impact of the words we use.”

In an statement emailed to The Washington Post on Friday, Leete wrote that her “Let them die” comment was only ever meant to refer to “the ideals that show a disregard and lack of support for our teachers who have a truly difficult job to do even without a pandemic.”

Leete sent The Post a written copy of her speech, which read, “Let them (ideals) die.” That sentence was followed in the document by a paragraph in which Leete instructed herself to “ad lib — referring to ideals that would have schools open during a pandemic, guns in schools, not supporting teachers . . . etc.”

In her email Friday, Leete added, “I will certainly admit, it was ineloquently stated and with a pause for the applause, the timing was off.”