The largest school district in Virginia voted late Thursday to protect transgender students from discrimination, despite pressure from conservative groups that attempted to frame the debate around whether the policy would let boys snoop in girls’ restrooms.
The Fairfax County School Board passed the amendment on a 10 to 1 vote, with one member abstaining.
The vote came as opponents to the proposal crowded into the meeting Thursday night, giving standing ovations to those who spoke against the amendments. The rancor between opponents and supporters at point got so heated during the meeting that security guards were called in.
The board's decision on Thursday also bucked a pattern set by two other school districts in the state that recently banned trans students from entering single-sex facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The two divergent approaches — and focus from national organizations on both sides of the issue — are quickly distinguishing Virginia as a key battleground in the country’s debate over transgender rights in public schools.
The policy approved in Fairfax County added “gender identity” to a list of characteristics — including sexual orientation and race — that the district cannot use to discriminate against a student, employee, or job applicant. The district posted a draft of the policy here.
With more than 186,000 students, Fairfax is the largest school system in Virginia, and close to nation’s capital, school board member Ryan McElveen, who sponsored the measure, told BuzzFeed News.
“Whenever we make a decision, it has bearing on state and national policy, and we are hoping this will bring a new age of respect and valuing of transgender and gender-nonconforming students and employees," he said.
District officials estimate that there are a couple hundred students who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming, McElveen said. Those students are already allowed to use single-sex facilities, including restrooms, that reflect their gender identity once faculty and the parents have decided it is appropriate.
“We have never had a single complaint about a student's restroom use, sports team participation, or transgender staff raised to our level [on the school board]," said McElveen, "and I think that proves we have handled our cases successfully. Our policy is not changing our practices."
But criticism has been persistent, including at an April 23 board meeting in which two Republican states delegates testified against the proposal.
Delegates Robert G. Marshall and David A. LaRock — neither of whom represent Fairfax County residents — said the school board lacked the authority to protect people based on their gender identity, the Washington Post reported.
The Family Foundation warned the policy “forces our children to confront sex issues they are not ready to handle and to have their privacy invaded in the school bathroom.”
Traditional Values Coalition President Andrea Lafferty, meanwhile, said the school board “has selected children — the most vulnerable, least powerful people in our county — as lab animals for this experiment."
The Alliance Defending Freedom suggested in a letter that the policy would invite legal action.
"Forcing students into vulnerable interactions with opposite-sex students in secluded restrooms and locker rooms would violate [a] basic right," the group added. "These scenarios create privacy and safety concerns that should be obvious."
But ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg said the concerns expressed by opponents are baseless attempts to redirect a conversation about basic civil rights protections.
In Virginia, school boards in Gloucester County and Stafford County have passed policies that restrict students to single-sex facilities that reflect their so-called biological sex. A complaint, filed in with the Department of Justice, is currently pending against Gloucester County.