The Prince William County School Board is considering a policy that would bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, a move that comes as school districts across the country grapple with how — or whether — to accommodate transgender students.
The proposed policy would expand the district’s existing rules prohibiting discrimination in schools to include the words “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” If passed, the policy would forbid any discrimination against transgender and gay students and staff.
Home to Virginia’s second-largest school district, with 88,000 students, Prince William County is the latest to wrangle with how to deal with transgender students who prefer to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity and not their sex at birth. The school board in neighboring Fairfax County added gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy last year in the face of vocal opposition from parents who feared the policy would allow transgender students to use bathrooms that conflict with the sex on their birth certificate.
Such proposals have faced opposition from parents who worry that allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice could violate other students’ privacy or create a safety risk. Some policymakers have sought to require students to use bathrooms that align with the sex on their birth certificate, saying such measures are necessary to safeguard students.
A transgender high school student in Gloucester County, Va., sued the school board last year after it passed a policy banning him from the boys’ bathroom. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sided with the teen, deferring to the Obama administration’s position that such prohibitions are a violation of Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in public schools. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
The Obama administration in May issued a guidance letter to the nation’s public schools directing them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity, a move that sparked immediate backlash and lawsuits from several states. A federal judge in North Texas issued a preliminary injunction last month halting the guidance.
Prince William school board member Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) said she is hesitant to proceed with a new policy with so much still in legal limbo.
“If we are to make a policy change, the decision must be thoughtful, well planned out and deliberate,” Satterwhite said. “It is my thought that because there is so much existing litigation, we need to wait for decisions from the courts before we proceed. In my opinion, to do otherwise is irresponsible.”
The district has no policy on how to accommodate transgender students when it comes to bathrooms and locker rooms. Schools Superintendent Steven L. Walts said such decisions have been left to principals, who work it out with the students and parents.
“We have been working with those things in a very personal way with the school counselors in order to make accommodations,” Walts said. “I think we have been pretty effective.”
School board chairman Ryan Sawyers, who wrote the proposed policy, said he decided to act after a gunman in Orlando killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in June.
“It inspired me to do what I can in my capacity as a school board member to protect those who are vulnerable,” Sawyers said.