Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza speaks during a news conference April 18, 2013. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

The Fairfax County School Board set off a furious debate when it decided to amend its student handbook to ban discrimination against transgender students, a move that angered some board members who saw the move as an 11th-hour change without proper vetting.

The board this week voted 9 to 3 to pass the amendment after a debate that stretched to three hours and led the district’s head of security to escort disruptive community members from the meeting. The change prohibits schools from excluding students from activities or from discriminating against students on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Board members who supported the measure said it was a pro forma move to align the student handbook with the district’s nondiscrimination policy passed last year, which also banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Schools Superintendent Karen Garza said the district already was barred from discriminating against transgender students because of last year’s policy change.

Opponents criticized the move as rushed and said they did not have enough information to make a prudent decision about the amendment, which was introduced Thursday night and had not been discussed at a previous meeting.

“We are going to ask our students to sign something that we haven’t discussed,” said board member Jeanette Hough (At Large), who choked up with emotion as she pleaded with the board to put the amendment on hold. “The goal is that each child is treated with love. . . . We get there by listening to one another and asking good questions, not by passing motions last-minute.”

The emotional debate over a four-word addition to the student handbook reflected the deep divisions over the question of how schools should accommodate transgender students, a debate occurring nationally among policymakers and in courtrooms.

A Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court in April backed a transgender student who is suing his school board for banning him from the boys’ restrooms, deferring to the Obama administration’s position that barring transgender students from the restrooms that coincide with their gender identities violates Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in public schools.

A month after that ruling, the Obama administration told the nation’s schools to adopt the same position and cited Title IX. Eleven states are suing the administration over the guidance, alleging that the administration overstepped its authority in telling public schools how to handle transgender students.

The Fairfax County school board expanded its nondiscrimination policy last year despite opposition from some parents. A student and conservative activist later sued the board over the policy; the suit was dismissed.

Although the Fairfax policy was passed a year ago, the school district has yet to write regulations that spell out what it will mean for sports teams and the use of restrooms and locker rooms. Hough, who voted against the amendment Thursday, said she wanted to understand what the policy would mean for students who, for religious reasons, cannot room with the opposite gender for overnight trips.

“What is the consequence for a Muslim student requesting a same-biological-gender hotel room for a school overnight trip?” Hough said. The board’s attorney provided no concrete answers.

School board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), too, wanted to know what the policy would mean for contact sports. On what teams would transgender girls be permitted to play?

School board chair Pat Hynes called the move a “housekeeping matter” that merely aligned the student handbook with the district’s existing nondiscrimination policy. And she said the protections are necessary to ensure the safety of all students.

“What the goal is is to provide a school environment that is safe and respectful, and we do have to pay especially close attention to these students when it comes to that,” Hynes said.

Transgender students and activists commended the school district for protecting the rights of transgender students, although they said the students still face bullying and harassment.

“I want to say thank you to Fairfax County for making sure every child in our school is safe,” said Davina Johnson, the mother of a transgender girl. She commended the district for focusing “on safety for all and not comfort for some.”