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After turmoil, Loudoun County Schools slated to vote on transgender student rights

People wait in line to speak in person on Aug. 10 at the Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va. The board is to vote this week on revised guidelines for the public schools’ approach to transgender students. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

After months of turmoil — and an intense board meeting Tuesday that drew nearly 200 registered speakers and dozens of protesters — the Loudoun County School Board will vote this week on whether to grant transgender children access to sex-specific facilities and school activities that match their gender identities.

If adopted, the new rules will also mandate that Loudoun public school teachers address transgender students by their names and pronouns. The Northern Virginia school system of 81,000 students is pursuing the policy in accordance with a state law that requires school systems to revise their treatment of transgender students to help safeguard them against harassment.

The vote was supposed to take place at Tuesday’s school board meeting, which drew dueling parking lot rallies by supporters and opponents of transgender rights, as well as the presence of Loudoun County law enforcement and the school system’s security force. It also attracted a horde of journalists from local and national outlets to report on the newest developments in the county that has become the face of the nation’s culture wars, and where meetings regularly generate conservative ire and segments on Fox News.

But after public comment stretched on for more than four hours, board members voted unanimously about 8:30 p.m. to postpone making a decision on the transgender guidelines until the following night. The board plans to reconvene at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to finish up its meeting and take the vote.

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

Over the course of the evening Tuesday, speakers filed in one-by-one to stand behind a lectern and face a surreal scene. School board members sat looking on from behind a desk on a dais at the front of a large auditorium. They were flanked by dozens of print and TV journalists, who crowded together clutching computers or cameras behind retractable black rope on one side of the room.

The forum was otherwise empty because Loudoun recently adopted rules for the public comment section of board meetings that prohibit a general audience and allow only 10 scheduled speakers to enter the building at a time.

The precautions were in part a response to the chaos that transpired at Loudoun’s last school board meeting, held in late June; it was the first public discussion of the proposed guidelines for transgender students. The meeting drew hundreds of angry parents, who repeatedly refused to quiet down, prompting school board Chair Brenda Sheridan to end the public comment section early. The proceedings culminated in one arrest and one summons for trespassing when two men refused to leave the building.

On Tuesday, the first in-person speaker at the meeting, former Loudoun student Nicholas Gothard, blanched as he stepped inside.

“Frankly,” Gothard said, blinking at the wall of television cameras, “this is a little weird.”

He was followed by Loudoun parents, teachers, students and graduates who spoke passionately — many tearfully — for and against transgender rights, and for and against Loudoun’s equity work. One man shared his childhood history of abuse. A woman urged board members to take their “transgender friends” and move to Russia, before adding that “I equally dislike all of you.”

Some parents of transgender students also spoke up to share the hurt they said their children had suffered and to beg the board to adopt the guidelines.

But many in the crowd became a little distracted, or angered, by the meeting arrangements.

“There’s a thunderstorm outside, and you’re sitting here in the air conditioning,” said Carri Michon. “Take a hint from [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo: Resign,” she added, prompting a loud, solitary cheer from another speaker awaiting her turn out of sight in the hallway.

It started with a mock ‘enslaved person trade’ and a school resolution against racism. Now a war over critical race theory is tearing this small town apart.

The vote, whenever it happens, will cap a tumultuous period for Loudoun, one of the largest school systems in Virginia and one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. The school division has been engulfed for much of the year by twin controversies over transgender rights and its work on racial equity.

Loudoun began the equity work, in part by holding anti-bias training sessions for teachers, after state- and school-level reports found widespread racism was undermining Black and Hispanic students’ progress through the system. But some parents and conservative activists have alleged that the efforts amount to the teaching of critical race theory — a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic in the United States — and have claimed that Loudoun’s work will force students to see each other only in terms of race and cause White children to feel ashamed of their race. Loudoun school officials have repeatedly denied that they are teaching or adopting the framework.

At the same time, an equally hot debate is raging over the rights of transgender students in Loudoun — and there is some overlap between the parents opposing critical race theory and the predominantly White, Christian and conservative mothers and fathers who are fighting the revised guidelines on transgender students.

That overlap was on full display at the rally Tuesday afternoon. Signs denouncing “CRITICAL RACIST THEORY” fluttered in the breeze close to others opposing transgender rights, including one that read, “Stop Gender Corruption Theory.” Some protesters showed up holding American flags and wearing memorabilia associated with former president Donald Trump; one person arrived driving a vehicle with the custom license plate “JOE LOST.”

Judge orders Virginia school district to reinstate teacher who said he wouldn’t use transgender students’ pronouns

Dozens listened in the sticky humidity as speakers railed against the transgender guidelines and against critical race theory. At one point, a lawyer from the Founding Freedoms Law Center — the legal arm of the conservative advocacy group Family Foundation of Virginia — announced plans to sue the school board and the superintendent in coming days over board members’ conduct at the June meeting that ended in the arrest.

Josh Hetzler said the law center will sue Loudoun “for violating Virginia’s open meeting laws on June 22, which they appear to be doing again today by prohibiting members of the public from being physically present in the meeting room.” The crowd cheered loudly at his announcement, forcing him to pause mid-sentence.

A pro-LGBTQ rights event had also been set for Tuesday, but organizers with the advocacy group Equality Loudoun canceled it, citing worries over “surging rates of COVID” and their fears that counterprotesters might become violent.

Nonetheless, a handful of transgender rights supporters showed up, waving pink-and-blue pro-transgender flags.

Many of those who oppose Loudoun’s new rules for the treatment of transgender students say the guidelines offend their Christian beliefs. At a school board meeting in late May, Loudoun physical education instructor Tanner Cross publicly refused to address transgender children by their pronouns, saying his Christian faith rendered him incapable of lying. Loudoun officials suspended Cross without pay and barred him from campus, then reinstated him at the order of a judge after Cross sued. That case continues.

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

Loudoun is not the only Northern Virginia school district to face upheaval over revised guidelines on transgender students; similar policies are being considered and passed by school systems statewide. Last month, neighboring Fairfax County Public Schools voted to adopt its own version of the new rules, which also permit transgender children access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities.

Although the vote was unanimous, the meeting drew charged and conflicting demonstrations beforehand — which wound up earning Fairfax national attention when a leader of the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP was filmed apparently wishing death to her opponents. Although the leader, Michelle Leete, later clarified that she meant to say she hopes her opponents’ ideals die out, she was dropped from her leadership position with a state parent-teacher association.