Fairfax Co. school board approves change to policy to protect transgender students, staff

The Fairfax County School Board voted to add "gender identity" to its non-discrimination policy for public schools. FOX 5's Alexandra Limon attended the heated meeting where the vote was held and has more on the story.

The Fairfax County School Board has voted in favor of expanding its non-discrimination policy to protect transgender students and staff.

The school board approved the change much to the dismay of many parents and this issue could soon affect other school systems because the school board said the change was federally mandated.

At its core, this fight circles around two words that have very big meanings: gender identity. The school board's move to change its non-discrimination policy is causing conflict between people who say transgendered people need protection and others who say the policy change has not been thought out.

Fairfax County Public Schools' non-discrimination policy has protections on race, color, sex, marital status, religion, nationality, disability and genetics. Before being approved, there was nothing in it about being transgender.

The school board held its vote during a heated and contentious public hearing Thursday night at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. People were fired up on both sides with screaming and shouting during the meeting. It got so bad that the board threatened to kick everyone out while police and security even showed up.

More than 200 people attended the hearing and stood up to show their opposition to the change.

Fairfax County School Board Chair Tamara Derenak Kaufax said in a statement after the vote:

"The decision by the School Board to add "gender identity" to our nondiscrimination policy is to provide an environment which promotes equality where every student and employee is treated with dignity and respect. This tells our students and staff that school and the FCPS workplace are places where they can be safe from harassment and discrimination.The School Board has taken this proactive step to protect our students and staff from discrimination.

"On March 4, 2015, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said local school boards have the authority under state law to include gender identity in their non-discrimination policies. The U.S. Department of Education has told school districts that transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX and has recently required some school districts including Alexandria, Virginia, to amend their policies to expressly include gender identity.

"No decisions have yet been made regarding accommodations that will be provided, under the revised policy. Our next step will be to hire a consultant to assist in developing appropriate regulations that protect the rights of all students and comply with state and federal law.

"As decisions are made about how best to protect our students and staff from discrimination, we will take great care to protect the rights and to provide for the needs of all students. FCPS will continue to provide the highest quality education for all students in safe and caring school communities."

At a public hearing in April, some parents said they were not comfortable with adding the words "gender identity" to the non-discrimination policy. On the flip side, those who support the change said it could make transgender individuals feel more comfortable.

Ryan McElveen is a Fairfax County School Board member and was pushing the amendment to add the words "gender identity" to the policy.

"We go through a vetting process and ensure those students or employees, in fact, are transgender and then we come up with a bathroom plan and other things related to that," said McElveen.

While supporters said the change brings protection for transgendered students and staff, others say it will also brings a lot of possibly problematic situations into classrooms, bathrooms and locker rooms.

"How are we supposed to pass a policy when we don't even understand the regulations," said school board member Elizabeth Schultz.

She opposes adding "gender identity" to the policy. She said the amendment's vague language sparks specific questions like: "Would there be transgendered teachers?"

"We don't know," Schultz told us. "That's the problem in a nutshell. I can't answer any parent's question. I can't answer any employee's question and I certainly can't answer any student's question."
 
The supporters pushing for this change said they are doing this not because of an outcry for it from their community, but because of a mandate by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

In a memo to the board, an assistant superintendent warned the U.S. Department of Education is requiring schools revise their non-discrimination policy and face termination of funds for refusing.

FOX 5 News attempted to get the Department of Education to comment, but we have not heard back from them. 

We heard from people on both sides of the issue Thursday on FOX 5 News Morning: 

"We believe it's wrong in principle to add gender identity as a protective category under non-discrimination policies because those policies usually cover characteristics that are inborn, involuntary, immutable, innocuous, and/or in the Constitution," said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council. 

"Young people don't choose to be transgender. That's how they are. And so really what Fairfax County is doing is saying regardless of who you are, we're going to protect you. You're going to be safe here at school," said Sultan Shakir of SMYAL. 

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