A divided Prince William County School Board on Wednesday approved anti-discrimination protections for LGBT students and employees, taking a stand on an issue that has roiled districts across the country.
The topic has particular resonance in Virginia’s second-largest county, where transgender former journalist Danica Roem is seeking to oust Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) in November’s elections. Roem has based part of her campaign on Marshall’s efforts to pass a state law requiring students to use school bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex.
Both Roem, a Democrat, and Marshall witnessed Wednesday night’s vote along with hundreds of others, listening as board members weighed the implications of including sexual orientation and gender preference to the school district’s nondiscrimination policy.
The change, which the board approved 5 to 3, would offer blanket protections against LGBT discrimination. But it specifically instructs the superintendent not to change the system’s policy on bathroom use, which is for situations to be handled by school principals on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with students’ families and administrators.
Still, the bathroom issue has loomed large over the discussion.
Marshall — who argues that allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice opens the door for sexual predators — said in an interview before the vote that the new policy would put the district at risk of being sued by students or staff who consider their school’s decision on bathroom use a form of discrimination.
He also suggested that teachers and school administrators could get sued if they use the wrong pronouns to refer to transgender individuals. “Unless people have some sign on their forehead indicating what pronoun you want, you’re not going to be able to achieve this,” Marshall said.
Roem said in an interview that it is important to include gender identity and sexual orientation in the anti-discrimination policy to guard against bullying that can often lead to violence.
“We need to change the dialogue about transgender violence in this country because it’s very real,” she said. “I can’t believe I have to say this, but a nondiscrimination policy is not going to expose anyone’s genitals to anyone else.”
The vote Wednesday came after more than two hours of public comment and lengthy statements by board members, some of whom questioned whether Prince William should take a position that has been interpreted in dramatically different ways across the country.
“Federal, state and local governments are not in agreement on nondiscrimination policies,” said board member Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville), who voted against the policy. “How can we do this now? I don’t know how you have community buy-in.”
Board member Justin David Wilk (Potomac) countered that board members had a moral obligation to protect all students from ill treatment. “I think we’re all allowed to have our own beliefs, but when those beliefs infringe upon the rights of others, we cross the line,” he said.
The Trump administration decided this year to pull back Obama-era guidance that directed public schools to allow students access to bathrooms that match their gender identity. Instead, federal officials said, such decisions should be left to local authorities.
Some school boards, including Fairfax County’s, have added nondiscrimination protections for transgender students and staff and say that in practice — but without a written policy — they allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. Others have mandated that students use bathrooms that align with their biological sex or have created separate, gender-neutral accommodations
In Virginia, several school districts have rejected LGBT protections or delayed implementing changes after litigation called the legality of those policies into question.
A lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board reached the U.S. Supreme Court this year after transgender student Gavin Grimm sought the right to use the boys’ bathroom instead of a gender-neutral facility. That case was remanded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, where it is pending.
Fairfax County put off passing specific bathroom regulations for its school system after policies elsewhere were taken to court. A legal challenge to Fairfax’s decision to add gender identity and sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy was recently dismissed.
Before the meeting, School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers said the policy change would help make the steadily growing school system more responsive to its 89,000 students.
“Over half the school districts in the commonwealth already have a policy like this,” Sawyers said. “This is, in my opinion, Prince William County catching up with the times.”
Many in the crowd Wednesday agreed. They held plastic mini-rainbow flags and signs reading “Stand up for LGBTQ rights!” and “We must protect all our children.”
But opponents also came out in force. One person held a sign urging the board to vote against the policy. It said: “No. The 99 percent have rights, too.”
During the public comment period, the audience grew boisterous, clapping and hooting after each speaker. As the board debated whether to accommodate every public speaker, Bill Petrak, who is against the change, shouted, “Let us speak!”
He was escorted out of the meeting by a county sheriff’s deputy.