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Transgender students poised to get expanded protections in Arlington

Key Elementary School is part of Arlington Public Schools, where rules to protect transgender students will soon go into effect. (Cal Cary/For The Washington Post)

Quincy DuBois often found himself torn between the “shame and self-doubt” of using the women’s restroom at his Northern Virginia school and the startled looks and probing questions he might face if he chose the men’s.

So he would wait — an experience he told the Arlington County School Board is all too common for transgender students such as himself.

“That’s how it feels to be a transgender teenager for a lot of people. Lots of waiting,” the rising senior at Wakefield High School said. “Waiting to come out. Waiting to be accepted by family. Waiting to transition and waiting for their communities to come around and to support them.”

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DuBois, 17, urged the school system during a meeting last week to put an end to some of the uncertainty transgender students face by adopting rules that allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity and that give students the right to use their chosen names and pronouns.

The rules are expected to go into effect over the summer, in time for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the school system. School board approval is not needed, but the board was given an update, and the public was allowed to comment on the regulations.

Once the guidelines are in place, Arlington will join other school systems in the Washington region — including D.C. Public Schools and Montgomery and Frederick counties in Maryland — with rules that spell out rights for transgender students.

It is the latest display of acceptance for transgender students in the Northern Virginia school system, even as a grass-roots group of Arlington parents has emerged to protest the guidelines.

Arlington, which educates more than 27,000 students, has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity since 2015. But the school system, like others in Northern Virginia, has not spelled out specific protections. Advocates say having such rules is vital to supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming students and ensuring consistency.

The school system would be the first in Northern Virginia to have explicit regulations in place, said David Aponte, co-chair of the advocacy group GLSEN NoVa.

“When you have an implementation plan fully in place, it gives students and parents clear language to follow,” Aponte said. “Students know exactly where they stand, and the schools can be held accountable to these standards.”

Under the proposal, school employees will be required to update class records with a student’s chosen name. Dress codes will not be gender specific. Gender-neutral facilities will be provided to any student who seeks privacy, according to the system.

Students, parents and advocates packed the board meeting to loudly back the plan, waving miniature LGBT and transgender pride flags to signal agreement with the nearly three dozen speakers who proclaimed support.

Among them was Michelle ­Cottrell-Williams, the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year, who said public educators have a responsibility to welcome all students.

“All people deserve to feel safe and to know that they belong,” said Cottrell-Williams, a social studies teacher at Wakefield High. “Our trans and gender-nonconforming neighbors are not out to get anyone. In my experience with members of this community, they merely want to live their truth in peace and leave others to do the same.”

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Supporters on Tuesday vastly outnumbered those who turned out to protest the plans. Among those in opposition: a group called the Arlington Parent Coalition, which accused the district of communicating poorly with families and the broader community about the proposal.

In a letter to school system officials, the group wrote that the rules would give transgender students “preferences and privileges that deny other students their rights,” such as privacy.

One parent, David Henshaw, told the school board that some students object to the rules because they conflict with the students’ beliefs and because the guidelines would stigmatize students who disagree with the policy and would harm women’s athletics.

“Many of us are concerned the perspectives of Arlington students have not been adequately heard or considered in this process,” Henshaw said. “These perspectives are valid. They are important and, thus far, they have been ignored.”

For some students, the rules would reinforce and put in writing what is already taking place inside schools. Erin Nitsche, whose daughter is transgender, said her family has not encountered any issues in Arlington schools — school staff allow the rising fourth-grade student to use the girls’ restroom, and they refer to her by female pronouns. The child transitioned in kindergarten, after “we kind of heard her saying she was a girl,” Nitsche said.

“We let her wear what she wanted. We let her grow out her hair. We let her become a girl,” she said. “It’s been like no pushback. Nothing.”

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