Prince William County’s school board is set to consider adding new nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ students and staff for a second time, setting up another highly charged battle over the proposal from At-Large Chairman Ryan Sawyers.
The board voted 5-1 last September to defer any consideration of the policy change, which would ban any discrimination in county schools on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. With the exception of Sawyers, members generally wanted to wait for the courts to weigh in on the issue, deciding instead to wait until a June 2017 meeting to make a decision.
Now, Sawyers is planning a June 21 vote on the matter, a few months after Virginia’s Supreme Court struck down a challenge to a similar policy change in Fairfax County schools.
“This is simply a policy that protects students and staff, and make them feel more welcome,” Sawyers said in an interview. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
Yet some board members remain reticent to act on the policy, and local social conservatives like Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th District, are once again whipping opposition to the measure. More than 500 people packed the board’s chambers last fall, with most speakers urging members to reject the policy change, and next week’s meeting is set to attract similar public interest.
“Mr. Sawyers is pushing a political agenda that wants to satisfy some groups at the expense of others,” Marshall said. “This threatens the privacy rights and security of people’s children.”
But LGBTQ advocacy groups are hoping to show the board that a majority of people in the county reject Marshall’s line of thinking. In particular, Equality Virginia has launched a series of events aimed at connecting LGBTQ people in Prince William with local businesses ahead of the vote as part of a broader effort to connect the policy change with the experiences of real people.
“We want to show that the county is a place that values LGBT people and wants an inclusive community,” said James Parrish, the group’s executive director. “And the county’s state representation is not reflective of what most people in Prince William believe.”
Parrish suggests that opponents of the change are merely a “vocal minority,” and David Aponte, co-chair of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, expects plenty of students and staff in Prince William will come out to support the policy change.
“We are definitely feeling a little bit more confident than we were the last time this came up,” Aponte said. “The political climate has changed, and that has elevated the pressure on the school board, in a positive way, to show that it’s time for local action.”
Board member Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District is less certain that the county needs to act right now. Like Marshall, she worries that the board doesn’t have the authority under state law to make this sort of policy change, noting that the state’s high court didn’t address that question in its ruling in the Fairfax case.
Satterwhite also suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court may soon take up the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy in Virginia pressing for access to the bathroom that corresponds with his gender identity, which could further complicate the matter. The court declined to hear Grimm’s case in March, but Satterwhite still “would rather wait and see what the courts do, and wait for final decisions rather than us making a decision and having to adjust it.”
Sawyers argues that this view continues to conflate the nondiscrimination policy change with transgender bathroom issues — he originally proposed a policy to address school bathrooms, but elected to defer to each school’s administrators to make their own decisions on the matter. Instead, he believes the policy change in its current form will merely help the school division attract a wider swath of potential employees and protect current students and staff who feel threatened.
“This is not a bathroom issue, nor have there been any incidents either,” Sawyers said. “The reality is this policy has been put in place in dozens of school divisions around Virginia, and we have no reports of anything bad happening because of it.”
In all, seven counties around Virginia have protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for both students and employees, while dozens more have policies related only to students. Sawyers also notes that Attorney General Mark Herring has issued an advisory opinion that school boards are well within their authority to set such policies.
“Right now, teachers are just a PTA witch hunt away from being fired — there is no state law preventing them from being fired on this basis,” Parrish said. “We need to make sure everyone is valued and protected.”
Legal arguments aside, Marshall doesn’t feel there’s any clear need for the policy. He points out that the school division couldn’t find any evidence of reports of this sort of discrimination when he filed a public records request on the matter, and he believes current anti-bullying laws already provide the school division with tools to combat any problems.
Satterwhite similarly believes the school system “has done a good job” of protecting LGBTQ students and staff, though Sawyers cautions that he’s heard of several sensitive cases that he can’t make public.
“A lot of times there are no documented cases because, in many counties, there can’t be,” Aponte said. “There’s no official way of recording this because it’s not recognized as a legitimate reason for bullying, but if you look at any other piece of data, that’s not the case.”
Aponte points to a 2016 study by his group showing that many students are still enduring homophobic remarks across the country, though their evidence suggests that nondiscrimination policies can help ease that issue.
“When people are loudly exclaiming that they don’t see a need for protection because they’ve not seen it happen, why are they so vigilant in making sure people can’t be protected?” Parrish said. “There’s a reason for that. They don’t want LGBT people to be protected.”
Satterwhite says her concerns are more based on process — she feels she doesn’t know the full details of how the policy might work in practice, though Sawyers hopes that the task force the board has previously discussed could study the policy change address those questions. The board took the initial step of creating a steering committee to form the task force, but Sawyers notes that Satterwhite and several other board members opposed any work to assemble the group and start studying the issue as recently as late January.
“The same people who wanted community input fought the task force,” Sawyers said. “This was moving along a nonpartisan, bipartisan road, before they tried to turn it into a partisan issue.”
But Satterwhite would still rather see the task force complete its work before the board passes any policy to provide a more “well-rounded view” of things.
Marshall also believes Sawyers has political motives of his own in pushing for the policy change — he’s running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Congressman Rob Wittman, R-1st District, next year — but the chairman feels the issue has been plagued by misinformation on the part of people like Marshall.
“Bob Marshall and his friends will use whatever fear tactic they can think of,” Sawyers said. “It’s another hill he’s choosing to die on, but it’s just what he does for a living. He tries to stop progress.”