The Prince William County school board has passed new anti-discrimination measures for LGBTQ students and staff, a move that marks the end of a contentious fight that raged over the last year.
The board voted 5-3 on June 21 to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, following a second lengthy meeting on the subject after the board previously voted to delay consideration of the policy change last September. Acting member Shawn Brann of the Brentsville District, Willie Deutsch of the Coles District and Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District cast the dissenting votes.
“We’ve been through a lot as a school board over this, but this was the right thing to do,” At-Large Chairman Ryan Sawyers, the lead backer of the policy change, said in an interview.
More than 500 people attended the board’s meeting in Bristow, though purple-clad supporters of the nondiscrimination measures dominated the board chambers — one joyous, drawn-out cry of “Equality!” rose above the raucous applause once the vote was tallied. When lawmakers considered the same change last fall, it was hundreds of opponents donned in red who packed the room.
Several advocacy groups, including Equality Virginia and Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, focused on whipping up support for the policy change over the last few weeks. A variety of local lawmakers — including Congressman Gerry Connolly, D-11th District, and many of the county’s Democratic state representatives — also wrote letters to the board urging members to support the policy alteration.
“I wish I had this in my school 25 years ago,” said Danica Roem, the Democratic nominee in the 13th District of the House of Delegates and the first transgender woman to qualify for a Virginia ballot. “I don’t know how different my life would’ve been...I just hope these other kids are free to live as their true selves now.”
Yet dozens of opponents expressed frustration with the change, citing concern that the new policy would let students use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, while others worried that courts around the country have yet to issue concrete opinions on similar policies.
“I have three daughters in county schools, and I don’t want to put them in jeopardy when they go to the bathroom,” said Ken Groves, a Bristow man who came to the meeting to protest the policy change.
But Loree Williams of the Woodbridge District and other supporters of the policy change argued that language will continue to allow each school’s administration to decide how to accommodate transgender students in private spaces.
“Nondiscrimination is not about going to the bathroom,” Williams said.
In an emotional speech, Williams leaned on her background as both a biracial woman and a sexual assault survivor as rationale for her vote, noting that she believed the school division could be “more inclusive of that word ‘and’” when it comes to representing people from diverse backgrounds.
“If we were inclusive of everybody, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Williams said.
Justin Wilk of the Potomac District said he examined dozens of the nation’s largest school districts with similar nondiscrimination policies and could not find any evidence of problems associated with those discrimination protections.
“When our beliefs infringe on the rights of others, that’s when it crosses the line,” Wilk said.
However, the meeting was anything but harmonious. When Sawyers moved to limit the number of speakers ahead of the vote, several opponents burst out with cries of “Let us speak!” Sawyers directed county police to remove those protesters, who left without incident.
The three policy change opponents on the board were particularly concerned that this measure lacked nuance or any specificity in how it would be implemented. Satterwhite suggested that division staffers told her there were “18 policies and regulations to be changed as a result of this” and worried that the board never took the time to hammer out what those changes might look like.
Yet Sawyers countered that there’s “no point in writing regulations if you don’t know the policy will pass,” leaving it up to Superintendent Steven Walts to sort out the details of how it will work in practice.
Deutsch harbored similar concerns about the policy details, successfully adding an amendment to the measure directing Walts to respect the privacy rights of all students and staff in enforcing the policy. He also proposed an amendment that would require that no one “violate a deeply held religious belief” in implementing this policy, though Sawyers was able to kill that change with a bit of procedural maneuvering.
“We have no clarity on the legal situation surrounding this,” Deutsch said. “We have to figure out what problem we’re trying to solve here...There are no regulations or understanding what this will do in practice.”
Satterwhite also argued that the policy wasn’t “properly vetted by the community,” lamenting that the board could have done a better job of engaging concerned parents before passing the policy change.
But plenty of people in the audience felt thoroughly educated about the nondiscrimination measure.
Kim Pennington of Haymarket brought her two children to the meeting to urge the board to pass the policy change. Her daughter, Liv, toted a sign reading, “My best friend has two moms — so what?”
“We just wanted to come out and support my daughter’s friends and her parents,” Pennington said. “Everyone should have the chance to live their truth.”
For Sawyers, the last year of fighting to enact the change has been an emotional one. He said it was the experience of watching “the bodies pile up” following a mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando last year that prompted him to propose the policy in the first place — he only hopes this change can make some small difference in the county’s culture.
“Hopefully, this makes our employees and students feel protected,” Sawyers said. “Now, we can be more welcoming.”