Accomack School Board Tables Transgender Student Policy

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to table discussion of a policy on the treatment of transgender students, which had been proposed in compliance with Virginia law. The policy will be rewritten to better ensure the safety of both transgender and non-transgender students sharing school facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms.

“Virginia has adopted a law. That’s fine. We know we have to go by the law. … The state law trumps our policy,” said school board member Camesha Handy.

“However, I think our policy should be written based on something that is relevant to Accomack County and Accomack County schools, not based on a statewide agenda,” she said, followed by applause from the audience.

The school board had voted on the policy during the board’s last regular meeting Sept. 28, after several concerned parents and citizens spoke against the proposal, but the vote resulted in a tie, and no action was taken.

The decision was reached to table the matter even though the Virginia Department of Education expected every school division to enact a policy on transgender students before the start of the current school year.

School board member Edward Taylor pointed out that Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane had sent an email in early April to remind school divisions to address the matter.

School board member Jesse Speidel said “the law is the law” and Accomack County must comply.

Chairman Paul Bull emphasized that Virginia has a law in place permitting a transgender student to use any school restroom for the gender with which the student identifies, and it could happen in Accomack County schools whether or not the school board has passed a related policy.

“It’s not fine if we get sued,” he added.

Vice Chair Ronnie Holden placed greater importance not on the policy but the procedures that will be developed later to enforce the policy and provide “privacy, dignity, safety for all students.”

School board member Janet Turner disagreed and said the procedures should be included in the policy.

Taylor said the policy as proposed is “vague,” and it’s insufficient “just to throw something on a paper and say, ‘Hey, we got a policy that complies with the law.’”

“Is it really protecting the transgender and non-transgender students?” he asked.

School board member Gary Reese said, “This policy might not ever get tested, but there’s a possibility that there is someone out there that might choose to come out because of the policy.”

There was someone out there who could have benefited from a school policy on the treatment of transgender students, but that person was not present at the school board meeting.

A former Nandua High School student, who is transgender, wrote to the Eastern Shore Post in an Oct. 1 email, “I’ve known I was trans since I was 12. I am now 22 years old, and the fact that I am trans hasn’t changed.”

“Despite being at a young age, an age where I was supposedly not ‘mentally developed enough’ to know if I truly was or wasn’t trans, my identity still affected me in a very real way. I never felt like myself. I was mocked for the way I dressed and looked. I was suicidal.”

Not being able to choose which restroom to use “only made me feel more ostracized from my peers,” the former Nandua student wrote.

“Only a handful of people knew that I was trans. The people who were aware, treated me with respect, and referred to me with my preferred name, and treated me as my preferred identity, were the ones who made going to school bearable.”

Yet some teachers would “threaten to punish me for so much as wanting to go by a nickname instead of the name I was given at birth. In the end, the negative experiences weighed on me so much I would skip school and ended up nearly being sent to a mental hospital for depression.”

“If the concern is truly about protecting the students, then the issue doesn’t lie with gender identity, and any matter of safety could be resolved in other ways that don’t alienate trans youth from their peers,” the writer asserted.

Furthermore, transgender people are more than four times more likely than cisgender people (those whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth; that is, not transgender) to be victims of violent acts such as rape, sexual assault, and simple and aggravated assault, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law, Williams Institute.

The writer also pointed out that a Virginia resident cannot obtain gender reassignment surgery before 18, the age of legal consent.

There appears to be no state law that explicitly prohibits minors from having the surgery. However, most doctors who perform gender reassignment surgery follow the World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care, which state genital surgery should not be performed until the patient reaches the “legal age of majority to give consent for medical procedures,” according to an article by Zack Ford, published by Think Progress in 2014.

The former Nandua student wrote, “The refusal for the schools to adopt the bathroom policy only welcomes further ignorance that in turn continues to perpetuate the animosity towards trans people.

“The existence of trans people in a public space does not harm communities, but the lack of acceptance that turns a blind eye to the bigger injustices trans people face every day does.”

Tuesday night’s motion to table discussion of the transgender student policy did not specify a date when the matter would be revisited by the school board; its next public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 19, 6 p.m., Metompkin Elementary School.