State’s transgender student policy topic of school board meeting comments

A much-anticipated new policy from Richmond on the treatment of transgender students was on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Pulaski County School Board as an information item.

However, the Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students developed and released by the Virginia Department of Education in response to House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 161, enacted by the 2020 Virginia General Assembly, was not actually discussed.

Instead, School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers discussed phone calls and emails his office had received about the DOE’s policy model.

Siers said the school board office had received a “lot of phone calls and emails” about the policy.

Siers said many of those who have contacted his office about the policy keep noting, “We understand this has been brought up by the General Assembly and Department of Education, but you should ignore them.”

“I didn’t have a good answer for that, so I reached out to our attorney and the DOE,” Siers told the school board.

“Basically, what I’ve been told is you’re (school board) in violation of state law if you’re not bringing about these policies, and you open yourself up to lawsuits by any transgender student who feels like we haven’t taken steps to protect their interests. And it would be an unwinnable suit if that would be brought against the school board,” Siers said.

“With that in mind I will say there is some fairness in how the policy can be developed and no decisions have been made to open up bathrooms to anybody of any gender,” he stated. “We’re not even close to having those kinds of conversations yet. We’re just now getting our hands on the final guidance from the state department. We get our sample policies from the Virginia School Board Association and we review them and make a determination. A lot of times they give us three or four options, so you (school board) decide which option you think is best for the school division. So, all that is still to be determined,” Siers explained.

“I know there is a lot of stuff on social media that is just complete misinformation and a lot of it seems designed to bring up fear in our area. We’re not the only county dealing with that. I would just ask that people take a breath and give us a few months to get the information that we have to use to make our decisions. It will be presented in a public meeting. There will be opportunities at that time for people to make comments and then the board can take action on whatever options are provided to us,” Siers continued.

“But ignoring and not adopting policy to protect transgender students is not an option. We are going to have to have policies that offer protection to transgender students and what those policies look like remain to be seen.”

Three people spoke during public comment time in the meeting.

The first, Rev. Donald Jones, Pastor of Pulaski Church of God, said as a pastor in community, “I’m dealing with about five situations now involving alternate lifestyles. I also somewhat feel some of the angst that you’re dealing with. I find this to be a slippery slope obviously. At the same time, I as member of the clergy and the community, want to serve you and our church to serve you and do everything we can to help make this transition as easy as possible.”

“Only thing I would ask is if there are any concessions to be made … I think the cry of the public is to make sure the students are kept safe. Not just transgender students, but also the students who have not chosen that particular lifestyle or feel led in that particular way,” Jones said.

Mark Bralley noted he is a former student of Pulaski County High School and was taught by two school board members – Dr. Paige Cash and Bill Benson – as well as others at the meeting “The situation with the transgenders leads me to a situation with my son who is seven months old. Our society these days is not for him and the way of life I was brought up in,” said Bralley.

“With that being said, a lot of these teachers that I had – including ones sitting up here (Cash and Benson) – this wouldn’t fly 10 years ago when I was in school. With that being said, before any of this goes through it needs to be thought about before its just pushed on somebody.

“Ten years ago, those things weren’t right, but now it’s okay. That’s the problem I have with it and I think that’s why our community is scared. Because its not something that’s going to be talked about it’s something that’s going to be pressed on.

“Ya’ll (school board) do have a voice and you can tell the state and stand up to the state and say, ‘Look, some of this isn’t morally right and doesn’t need to be pushed,’” Bralley said.

Ashley Bowman noted her appreciation for all the work the board had done on the recently approved racial equity program, and thanked board member Penny Golden for comments she made at the last school board meeting “valuing all students.”

“It is important for people to know this is not just an initiative as this will be an ongoing effort and will continue for years to come. This work is important, and I acknowledge it is hard work and not always well-received, so I want to say thank you and for getting started on it,” Bowman said.

“This plan,” she said, “simply boils down to human value and being good educators. The plan is not political and is about honoring the unique value of all students.

“Equity isn’t a pie divvied out into sections. Advocating for our black, brown, disadvantaged students and students with different abilities is not taking away from any of our other students. There is room for equity for everyone, including those students that many people are concerned will lose something in this plan. I think it’s important to keep in mind that we all have biases. I think many of our citizens who are from this area have likely faced biases for being Appalachian. There has been continued bias against them that they are just ignorant hillbillies,” Bowman continued, noting she did not agree with that bias.

“Appalachians have to work twice as hard as people who don’t have the Appalachian dialect to prove that they are competent and worthy of listening to, and that their voice matters. That bias is just as hurtful as the bias that some of our students face.

“We are not advocating for giving anyone more of the pie, we’re just trying to make sure that everyone gets a fair shot at the whole pie.

“I would also like to address the continuing discussion that allowing transgender students equal rights and allowing them equal access to the bathroom and locker room of their chosen gender will increase predatory behavior against our children at school,” Bowman said.

“I myself have a middle school-aged daughter and son so these policies will directly affect my children as well.

“A recent article noted that although there have been some past examples of adult heterosexual males dressing as women to gain access to women spaces, there’s actually no record of that behavior increasing when there is an LGBTQ+ non-discrimination law on the books.

“Simply put, the argument that our children are at an increased risk of rape with non-discriminatory laws and practices has been proven false. Police and school officials who have had these laws in place for some time were also reporting that they have not seen higher instances of rape or sexual assault in their areas.

“Experts in the area point out that a law encouraging non-discrimination is not going to further encourage criminal behavior.

“If the behavior is there, the behavior is there.

A predator is a predator, and it is discriminatory to characterize our transgender students as predators simply because of how they express their gender,” she said.

She continued that the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a leading organization to stop violence toward women, “has come out saying these initiatives are utilized to perpetuate the myth that protecting transgender people’s access to restrooms and locker rooms endangers the safety and privacy of others – in their experience and expertise – they would find those claims false.

“In the long run we are here to value every student as human,” Bowman said.

“If someone is truly interested in sexually assaulting someone, it doesn’t matter what laws and policies we have, they will commit the crime regardless.

“Laws don’t stop true predators,” she said.

“I think all parents can agree on one thing, in the long run we all want all of the kids safe from predators.”

Bowman did note that there is a concern with a lack of privacy in the bathrooms and locker rooms.

“I think we can all remember that awkwardness of showering after gym classes. So, I would request the board look into getting some stalls or curtains installed in both the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms to protect the privacy of all students.”

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot