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School board tables decision on transgender policies

The Southampton County School Board voted unanimously Aug. 9 to table the decision regarding updated policies that address transgender students.

Gwendolyn P. Shannon

The board had been expecting to take action on the issue in the Aug. 9 meeting, but before discussion began, Southampton County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon recalled to board members how she had mentioned in July that the Virginia School Boards Association said that SCPS already had policies in its policy manual that would serve the purpose of addressing its transgender students.

Shannon then referenced a July 30 memo from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James F. Lane, who was representing the Virginia Department of Education.

“(The VDOE) stated that pretty much what VSBA is saying is not consistent with their model policies, and their model policies are a lot more specific and inclusive and precise than the policies that we already have in our policy manual, and those are the policies that I presented at the last board meeting,” Shannon said. “So I just felt like I needed to say that, because I don’t want you all to blindly approve these policies since I now have gotten a memo from the state department saying that if we comply and approve these policies, then the board bears the burden of a potential lawsuit should someone decide to sue because we would not be compliant.”

“So what is your recommendation?” Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn asked.

“I honestly think that we need more time,” Shannon replied. “And what (Lane) did in his memo was instead of saying September, because initially it said September, he now said during the 2021-22 school year, a transgender policy must be approved. So what he did was he gave us a little bit more time.

“And I think with him giving us that information just a week or so ago, we really probably need to talk more with our attorney and see if our attorney will draft up policies that are consistent with what the VDOE is asking in accordance with the House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 161.”

Board member William Worsham later addressed the chair when he said, “I would say any recommendation for approval or disapproval of the policy should come from the board and not one individual, such as the superintendent.”

“Mr. Worsham, that’s where all policies come from — from the board,” Goodwyn said.

“What I’m saying is we do it on the recommendation from the superintendent,” Worsham said, noting he did not think that should be the case in this instance.

“The superintendent follows the direction of the board,” Goodwyn said. “So, the superintendent does the research for us, and the superintendent makes a recommendation. So the superintendent follows the direction of the board. So, any policy that we adopt is not the responsibility of the superintendent. It’s the responsibility of the board.”

Worsham replied, “But if you read it, the directives, all the way through, and I have it here, all the way through it talks about the board making the recommendation and the board making the approval.”

“And the board does that for every policy,” Goodwyn countered. “The board sets the policy. The superintendent brings the information. The board makes the policy. So it’s for this policy, any other policy, that the board makes the policy.”

Worsham said, “In this particular one, with the lasting effects this one will have, I think it ought to come from the board totally. That’s all I’ll say.”

Board member Denise Bunn said to Shannon, “I’d like to say that I appreciate the fact that you brought the information that we don’t have to approve it tonight because we now have the duration of the school year to get this straight.”

Bunn then made the motion to table the decision.

In his memo, Lane wrote that since the VDOE’s model policies had been finalized, the rulings made by the U.S. District and Appeals Courts on Grimm vs. Gloucester County School Board related to Title IX and sex discrimination were upheld. 

According to the Justia opinion summary on that court case found at law.justia.com, the courts found that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 can protect transgender students from school bathroom policies that prohibit them from affirming their gender.

Lane continued by noting that additionally, the circuit court in Lynchburg has ruled that a recent complaint against VDOE’s model guidance lacks standing and therefore has been dismissed. 

“The mandate to implement the provisions of HB145/SB161 remain(s) in effect,” he wrote.

“With respect to content of local policies, VDOE’s model policies extend beyond just

compliance with nondiscrimination laws to cover matters related to student records, student

privacy, bullying and harassment, dress codes and participation in school activities, among

other required topics,” he continued. “Therefore, nondiscrimination policies alone may be insufficient to meet the full scope of this legal mandate.”