RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Student activists held school walkouts across Virginia on Tuesday to protest Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposed changes to the state's guidance on district policies for transgender students that would roll back some accommodations.
Beginning Tuesday morning, students streamed out of their classrooms to decry the model policies unveiled earlier this month.
If adopted by school districts, the policies would require parental sign-off on the use of any name or pronoun other than what's in a student's official record.
They say participation in certain school programming and use of school facilities should be based on a student's biological sex, with modifications offered only to the extent required under federal law.
“We decided to hold these walkouts as kind of a way to ... disrupt schools and essentially have students be aware of what’s going on,” Natasha Sanghvi, a northern Virginia high school senior who helped organize the resistance effort, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Sanghvi said the existing, more permissive state policies, which were adopted under former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's administration, had been powerful in helping students feel affirmed in their identities at school.
The new ones made public earlier this month, she said, have the potential to harm “every single queer student in the state of Virginia.”
Defenders of the Youngkin model policies, some of whom weighed in through an online public comment period that opened Monday, said the changes lent greater respect to the role of parents in their children's lives.
The new policies say school divisions may not encourage teachers to conceal information about a student’s gender from his or her parents. They also say no school employee or student can be compelled to refer to other students in a way that violates their “constitutionally protected rights.”
“For too long, there has been a constant abdication of parental rights and involvement in the public space with their children. This policy, in my opinion, enforces those rights of parents to have a proper say in their (children's) upbringing, health and safety,” wrote Everett Gillus Jr., who declined further comment when reached by AP.
The Virginia Department of Education would review all of the comments submitted - over 17,000 were in by Tuesday morning - and may make “final edits” to the guidelines before they are finalized by the state superintendent, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.
Some comments suggest the policies could require students to "come out" to families that will not honor their desire to go by a different name or be identified as a different gender, WTVR reported.
"In a perfect world, children would have a supportive environment in both school and at home," Beth O'Connor with the Virginia Rural Health Association told WTVR. "Unfortunately, we know that there are parents, for whatever reason, would not be supportive or may even reject a child. And we know that children who experience that kind of rejection, because of their gender identity, are eight times more likely to attempt suicide. And that's a very frightening statistic for us."
The administration then expects school districts to adopt policies that are “consistent with” the model, in accordance with a 2020 state law. Some districts in more liberal areas have signaled that they may not comply, raising the specter of lawsuits.
On the issue of enforcement, the state law is silent.
For Virginia school associations, the change in course has led to some uncertainty.
The Virginia Association of School Superintendents is set to hold a meeting with legal counsel to discuss the changes.
The Virginia High School League, an athletics sanctioning organization that currently has a policy allowing transgender student-athlete participation under certain conditions, is still “collecting information,” a spokesman said.
On Tuesday, aerial footage from a news helicopter showed hundreds of students protesting outside two Prince William County high schools. Protests were planned across northern Virginia, the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions and in smaller, more rural districts, according to details provided to reporters. Democratic state lawmakers attended at least one rally.
Asked for comment on the protests, a spokeswoman for Youngkin emphasized that the new guidelines make it clear that when parents are part of the process, schools will accommodate the requests of children and their families.
“While students exercise their free speech today, we’d note that these policies state that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment,” spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement.
The updated guidelines say school divisions must ensure no student is discriminated against or harassed on the basis of his or her sex and should “attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs," including transgender students. They also say single-user bathrooms and facilities should be made available.
The previous state guidelines, which also drew protests and sparked heated school board meetings across the state, said schools should let students use names and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without “any substantiating evidence.”
They also said students could participate in programming and access facilities in a manner consistent with their gender identity and urged schools to weigh sharing information about students’ gender identity with parents on a “case-by-case” basis, considering the health and safety of students.
Those guidelines also led to still-ongoing legal challenges from both sides of the issue, and many school districts chose not to adopt them.
On the federal level, the Biden administration has been pushing for stronger protections for LGBTQ students, but it has faced sharp opposition from Republican-led states.