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Loudoun County School Board approves guidelines on transgender student rights

Supporters of the transgender student policy celebrate as the measures were approved Wednesday by the Loudoun County School Board. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Amid skyrocketing tension and in a victory for LGBTQ advocates, the Loudoun County School Board voted Wednesday evening to allow transgender students access to school facilities and groups, such as sports teams, that match their gender identities.

The new guidelines, which take effect immediately, also require teachers to address transgender children by their names and pronouns.

The policy was approved by a 7-to-2 vote, with the board’s two conservative members — John Beatty (Catoctin) and Jeff Morse (Dulles) — opposed to it.

The evening saw open conflict between Beatty and Morse, and the liberal members of the board. Morse gave a lengthy, passionate speech denouncing the guidelines shortly before the vote.

“Tonight’s a difficult night for our community,” Morse said, asserting that the guidelines will hurt children and calling them “divisive, anti-family, anti-privacy, anti-teacher.”

He added: “It’s so unneeded . . . because if you are a [Loudoun] student today you are protected from bullying, harassment and abuse.”

Others on the board spoke up equally vehemently in favor of the guidelines.

“You seem to imply that bullying and harassment of our LGBTQ students is a thing of the past,” board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) told Morse. “I don’t know how you can say that with a straight face, I’m sorry.”

Loudoun County Public Schools was one of more than 200 school systems throughout Virginia considering revised guidelines for transgender students, after the state government passed a law in 2020 requiring them to do so to help protect students against harassment. But the issue has spurred more pushback in Loudoun, a Northern Virginia school district of 81,000 and one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, than almost anywhere else.

Wednesday’s vote came during a sparsely attended meeting at the school system’s administrative offices — which afforded a stark contrast to the day before, when more than 100 people showed up to hold dueling parking lot rallies and to speak both for and against the transgender policy.

The School Board was originally slated to vote on the issue at its Tuesday meeting but opted to postpone the decision to the next day after the public comment period stretched more than four hours.

After turmoil, Loudoun County Schools delays vote on transgender student rights

On Wednesday, sniping between board members began early in the meeting, when Chair Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) asked Morse to read aloud the text of the motion calling for the vote on the transgender guidelines. He declined, saying he did not plan to support the measure.

Later, Morse and Beatty attempted to delay the vote on the guidelines.

“I would like to make a motion that we move this back [to committee] . . . to give more time to people to come with their concerns,” Beatty said.

Morse spoke after him, sharing his frustration that the state had passed its law requiring school systems to update their transgender guidelines in early 2020 at the height of alarm over the coronavirus pandemic, a time when “I’m willing to bet most of our constituents had not a clue this was being passed.” He also alleged that Loudoun’s transgender policy had not been vetted sufficiently — prompting a curt response from Sheridan.

“I just wanted the public to understand that this policy has been under review for more than a year,” she said.

Beatty’s motion to push back the vote ultimately failed, with only himself and Morse voting in favor of the delay.

Despite the sharp exchanges, the board cooperated on several amendments to the transgender policy.

Members voted almost unanimously — with only Beatty opposed — to add a requirement that all Loudoun school staffers receive training on how to comply with the new guidelines and care for transgender students. The board also voted unanimously to add language requiring the school district to modernize all its bathrooms and locker rooms to improve student privacy, in part by adding unisex bathrooms.

The debate over transgender rights has been roiling Loudoun County since early this year. At the same time, the school system is facing backlash for its racial equity work — such as holding anti-bias trainings for teachers — from some parents and conservative activists, who have alleged Loudoun is teaching critical race theory, a charge the system has repeatedly denied.

Administrators first circulated a draft version of the transgender student guidelines last academic year. In May, Loudoun physical education instructor Tanner Cross said at a board meeting that his Christian faith meant he could not lie to children and therefore could not address transgender students using their pronouns.

School officials promptly placed Cross on paid leave and barred him from campus. The PE teacher sued the school district, and a judge later ordered Loudoun to reinstate Cross while his lawsuit continues.

Then in late June, the School Board met to publicly consider the proposed guidelines for the first time — and opponents and supporters showed out in force. After hundreds of angry parents repeatedly refused to quiet down during the meeting, Sheridan cut short public comment. When two men still refused to leave, law enforcement wound up arresting one and issuing the other a summons for trespassing.

For some School Board members, all the turmoil made the results of Wednesday’s vote bittersweet.

“The entire approach of this policy was to help the transgender kids, yet it put a big target on their backs,” said board member Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn). “We are responsible for that, and making our community divided.”

In a reflection of high community interest, the School Board meeting on Tuesday saw nearly 200 speakers file in one by one to share two minutes each of their views. Most spoke against or for the proposed transgender student guidelines, although some took the opportunity to denounce Loudoun’s decision to require all students and staff to wear masks this fall. Altogether, the speeches stretched from about 4 p.m. to close to 9 p.m., at which point the board voted to recess and reconvene afresh the next day.

The board had adopted this unusual setup for public comment for the new academic year — which forbids a public audience and limits the number of speakers allowed in the building at one time to 10 — in part as a response to the unrest that broke out at the June 22 meeting.

But it applies only during the public comment portions of a board meeting and not during the “business” sections of the meetings. That meant a full audience was permitted Wednesday when the board voted on the transgender guidelines.

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

Loudoun spokesman Wayde Byard told reporters on Tuesday that the school system was preparing to welcome as many as 200 attendees for the vote. But in the end, just under two dozen members of the public showed up Wednesday, sitting amid a sea of empty red chairs. A few women in the front row wore rainbow masks and cradled signs reading, “Trans rights are human rights.”

In a nod to recent events, though, everyone entering the building had to submit to a screening from security personnel that included body-wand waving and bag checks. A sign stuck in the grass outside warned attendees that “ALL PEOPLE AND ITEMS ARE SUBJECT TO SEARCH.”

The sign also listed nine categories of prohibited items, including “rods or sticks of any kind,” “mace,” “pepper spray” and “weapons.”