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Virginia says local schools should 'eliminate gender-based practices' under new transgender rules

Even events such as "father-daughter dances" may be discontinued under new guidance developed for local school boards by state Department of Education.

Updated: June 29, 2021 - 10:56pm

Virginia's Department of Education is urging school districts throughout the state to work to end as many sex-segregated activities and programs as possible as part of a recently promulgated set of rules aimed at accommodating transgender students statewide. 

The department's Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia's Public Schools was developed pursuant to legislation passed last year by the state legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. That law dictates that the Department of Education is required to "develop and make available" new rules, after which school districts are required to adopt policies that "are consistent with but may be more comprehensive than" the state-level guidance.

The rules were quietly promulgated earlier this year, but generated interest and controversy late this month as some school officials publicized efforts to come in line with the guidance. 

The document offers "information, best practices, guidance, procedures, and standards" for school boards developing policies to address their treatment of transgender students. School boards "may adopt example language in the model policies or use it as a guide to draft policies that meet the unique needs of their school division," the guidance reads. 

The document advises that "in general, school divisions should make efforts to eliminate gender-based practices to the extent possible."

"Gender-based policies, rules, and practices can have the effect of marginalizing, stigmatizing, and excluding students, regardless of their gender identity or gender expression," it states, citing "practices that may be based on gender" such as "grouping students for class activities, gender-based homecoming or prom courts, limitations on who can attend as 'couples' at school dances, and gender-based events such as father-daughter dances."

The new state rules also appear to require local schools to permit students on overnight school trips to choose lodging accommodations that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

"Students have the right to equitable access to programs, activities, and events that include but are not limited to acknowledgements, dances, assemblies, after-school programs, extracurricular activities, intramurals, non-competitive sports leagues, and field trips," it reads. 

"For overnight field trips, the school should not force the student into single-occupancy accommodations that are not required for other students," it states, though it acknowledges that "such alternative accommodations should be made available to any student requesting them."

Fall 2021 deadline for new rules

The Virginia Department of Education did not clarify when asked about the overnight policy and several other provisions of the guidance. 

The guidance, meanwhile, states that "local school boards shall adopt policies consistent with model policies contained in this document no later than the 2021-2022 school year," which in Virginia begins in early September.

Some school officials are already scrambling to draft such policies. Pulaski County Public Schools, located in the southwestern portion of the state, posted its draft policy of the rules on its Facebook account on Tuesday.

Echoing the board of education guidance, the school district said it would plan to "eliminate or reduce the practice of segregating students by gender," though only "to the extent possible." The draft stated that it would allow students to participate in activities based on their self-declared gender identity so long as the student demonstrated that the identity was "sincerely held."

The district in the draft did note that school personnel would be empowered to "question a student's asserted gender identity when there is a credible basis for believing that the student's gender identity is being asserted for some improper purpose." Officials with the school district were unavailable for comment on the policy on Tuesday. 

The move from the state board of education comes amid a contentious, ongoing debate across the U.S. regarding the treatment of transgender students, including how authorities should handle sensitive issues surrounding locker-room and bathroom access. 

That debate has played out in Virginia very publicly in recent years: Gavin Grimm, a student in Gloucester County who self-identifies as male, led a successful court challenge against the county school board's policy of requiring transgender students to use unisex bathrooms rather than those of the sex with which they identify. 

The Supreme Court this week said it would decline to hear a challenge to that ruling, leaving in place the order from the lower courts that the school board must make district bathrooms open to students based on how they identify themselves.

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