Why parent calls Virginia's new guidance on transgender students 'very scary'

Posted at 6:35 PM, Jul 19, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- For families like hers, that include a transgender student, Shannon McCay said Virginia's new "Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect" felt much more like an attack by the state for political purposes.

"Felt a lot of stress I have to say," McCay said. "We have to be honest, it is targeting trans and non-binary students.”

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) rolled out new — and controversial — model policies for the treatment of transgender students in public schools. Virginia law requires the VDOE to publish the policies for local school districts to follow closely.

Shannon McCay
Shannon McCay

IN-DEPTH: Click here to read current policies | Click here to read the previous policies

VDOE leadership, under the direction of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), wrote the previous model policies, authored in 2021 by then Gov. Ralph Northam (D), "promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools" and "disregarded the rights of parents."

Under the new policy guidelines, parents must notify schools in writing if they want their student referred to by a name or pronouns that differ from the official record, and unless officially changed with the state, the student's gender will be considered the one they were assigned at birth.

Teachers and staff cannot be asked to use pronouns for a student that differ from the official record.

Bathroom and locker room accommodations will be made for transgender students, but parents can "opt out" their child if a trans student is allowed by law to use a sex-separated facility.

Schools are also required, under the model policy, to notify a parent if a student questions their gender identity, a provision that's most troubling to LGBTQ advocates.

"This is the government deciding, not parents deciding, what is best for students. If they were really centering parents in this policy, then they would believe parents like me and all the families I work with," said McCay, who is the founder of the non-profit He, She, Ze, and We.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin
Gov. Glenn Youngkin

Youngkin told reporters Wednesday the main takeaway for Virginia schools is that parents need to be notified about their child's upbringing and conversations about their gender identity that happen with school officials.

“Parents should be engaged in their children's lives, and we need children to be engaged with their parents," Youngkin said.

“Let’s go to families first. The children belong to parents, not politicians and bureaucrats and administrators, and not even teachers, who are doing their best here. So, let’s start with parents and wrap children with love and capabilities and support.”

Virginia law says school districts should adopt policies consistent with the VDOE model policies, but can adopt their own, more comprehensive policies too. Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said he will recommend the school board reject the new model policy, saying it endangers trans and non-binary students.

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Jack Preis, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has closely followed the issue, said the new document shifts the playing field of this issue from the state to local school boards.

"My expectation is there there will be some litigation," Preis said. "The Youngkin administration announcement puts the ball in local school district’s court. They will adopt their own policies, and then parents and students will react to those policies, and depending on what the school district does, we may see some litigation.”

Affirming the rights of parents in their child's education is a centerpiece of Youngkin's political platform and a key component of the new VDOE model policy. Preis said the document does not clarify that the rights of a parent in education, though present, is much more limited than people think.

"Parents don't have an individual right to control every last detail of their kid's education. You can't call up the school district and say, 'I don't want my kid to learn math.' You can't call up the school district and say, 'I don't like my teacher,' because they're a particular race, or what-not," Preis said. "There's lots of parts of public education that parents are left with sort of a take-it-or-leave-it approach."

University of Richmond law professor Jack Preis
University of Richmond law professor Jack Preis

McCay noted Virginia removed LGBTQ health resources for youth from the Virginia Department of Health website a few weeks ago. Her work directly with trans and non-binary students and families feels more important by the day, she said.

"This is very coordinated and very scary to our families," she said. “[We] just want to let folks know that we’re hear for them, that we love them, and we believe everyone to be their authentic self. Really, no one knows someone more than you know yourself.”

McCay said trans and non-binary people should contact groups like hers if they need support.

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