Can Youngkin Change Policy Regarding Transgender Students Across Virginia?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Policies regarding transgender students may soon change in Virginia schools as Gov. Glenn Youngkin leads an effort to overhaul of state standards.

A the law was adopted in 2020 under Democratic leadership, ordered the Virginia Department of Education to create a “model policy” to “address common issues affecting transgender students in accordance with evidence-based best practices.”

Some argue that Youngkin’s new rules, which prioritize parental rights, do the exact opposite of what this law intended, namely to create a more supportive educational environment for transgender students.

Although the policy is being rewritten without additional approval from the General Assembly, at least one law professor believes the Youngkin administration has a chance to win if the case goes to trial.

“Agencies have a fair amount of latitude in how they interpret statutes, and because we have fairly ambiguous or open-ended terms, I think it would be in the governor’s favor if it were a challenge,” said the Richmond law professor. Jack Price University. “The short answer is we don’t know for sure yet.”

Anthony Bellotti, a transgender college student who helped draft the standards completed under former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, said he was heartbroken to learn Youngkin was trying to overturn the work.

“It felt like a punch in the gut to see what I had worked so tirelessly for, which resulted in so many students being honestly ripped apart in front of us,” Belotti said. “For young people to be respected in schools now, they have to get permission from their parents, and forcing students to go out at any time that isn’t their own is unfair and dangerous.”

The a new document from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) says parents must be given an opportunity to object before any gender counseling services are offered at school.

If the student is a minor, parents must also cover any changes in pronouns or names in writing.

The new VDOE policy states that school divisions may not cause staff or other students to address students “in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

It also says no local policy can encourage teachers to withhold important gender-related information from a student’s parents.

“I am delighted with the new policy. I feel like they embrace parental rights and protect the rights of all students,” said Tera Lawrence, a mother from Hanover. “When you have a child, you want to have a say in their upbringing, their education and their values, so I felt the previous policy really didn’t protect that.”

Lawrence said the bathroom policy was at the top of the list of problems with the old state standards.

The new VDOE policy states, “Students must use bathrooms that match their gender, unless federal law requires otherwise.”

Price said the ruling doesn’t change anything for transgender students.

“Transfer students who are concerned about not being able to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity can still use the bathroom they want regardless of that order,” Price said. “This order specifically recognizes that they have rights under federal law, and it does not attempt to change any of those rights under federal law, and it could not do so even if it wanted to.”

Under the updated standards, Price said some schools may have to change their participation policies for sports that were not specifically addressed in the previous state standards. Yougkin administration policy now states: “For any athletic program or activity that is segregated by gender, appropriate student participation shall be determined by gender. [School Division] make reasonable changes to this policy only to the extent required by federal law.”

Meanwhile, Price said a pending Supreme Court case could affect the implementation of the new policy by determining whether teachers have a constitutional right to refuse to use students’ preferred pronouns.

Youngkin administration a formal public comment period awaits will open on September 26 and run for 30 days before the new policy goes into effect. To comply, the document says, school boards must adopt policies that meet or are more comprehensive than state standards.

Price said there is no specific enforcement or penalty mechanism in the 2020 law. However, he said non-compliant districts could be more vulnerable to lawsuits.

Youngkin declined an interview request Monday.

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