The Stafford County School Board expects to vote on the proposed student and employee nondiscrimination policies at its next meeting on Sept. 10.
“I do believe this board is committed to having that vote on Sept. 10,” board Vice Chairwoman and Falmouth District representative Sarah Chase said the board’s meeting last week.
Chase said she and Chairwoman Patricia Healy met with attorney Jennifer Parrish of the Fredericksburg law firm Parrish Snead Franklin Simpson to discuss concerns expressed by some board members about the policies at the July 16 meeting.
Parrish will deliver her legal opinion on the policies to the board Aug. 24. The board will meet in a brief closed session prior to a scheduled work session that day.
In an interview Wednesday, Chase said board members have reserved room in their schedules for another closed session with Parrish on Sept. 3, “if we feel we need a more in-depth discussion.”
The policies under consideration would expand the school division’s employee equal employment, nondiscrimination and anti-retaliation policy to include sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, genetic information and pregnancy as protected categories, and introduce a new “equal educational opportunity” statement for students that would include the same protected categories—in addition to race, color, national origin, political affiliation, religion and sex.
The policies were first presented to the board in May. Superintendent Scott Kizner said they largely mirror language found in similar policies that have been passed in other Virginia school divisions, including Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Healy and Aquia District representative Irene Hollerback requested an independent legal review of the policies at the board’s June 25 meeting.
The board was scheduled to vote on the policies July 16, but instead approved a motion by Hartwood District representative Holly Hazard to delay, “until such time as the legal opinion requested by the School Board members ... has been completed by an attorney selected by the School Board and that all members of the School Board, not a select few members, are provided with the opinion and/or advice of counsel.”
Emails between School Board members and Kizner obtained by The Free Lance–Star show that Kizner forwarded a “Legal Justification for Revised Anti-Discrimination Policies” written by Richmond-based attorney Pakapon Phinyowattanachip to all board members on July 12.
Kizner sent an earlier draft of the opinion to board members on July 15 at Hazard’s request.
Chase said the opinion provided did not answer all the questions of some board members. She said some board members worry that the policies will result in certain requirements about how students must be accommodated.
“There is a worry that some families will come in and demand accommodation irrespective of how that would affect other students,” she said.
Other board members view the policy as creating space for allowing families and school administrators to meet and discuss how individual students can be accommodated.
“There would be give-and-take,” Chase said.
In an interview earlier this month, Hazard said she is concerned that the policies as written take implementation authority away from the board.
The equal opportunity policy for students states: “The superintendent/designee shall be responsible for developing a plan that implements the intent of the board as set forth in this policy and ensuring that it is reviewed periodically. Such plan shall be shared with the board for input and review.”
Hazard said she is “the one who has to answer to the public” and that it is her responsibility as a board member to make the funding decisions necessary should bathroom facilities require renovation, for example.
“I just don’t believe that a superintendent who’s been here less than one year should have the authority to implement the policy,” she said. “I think we [the School Board] are supposed to say, ‘Let’s really look at this.’ ”
Hazard said she thinks a better first step for the school division would be to pass a policy statement affirming a commitment to nondiscrimination, instead of rewriting student and personnel policies. The statement would include information about where exactly students and employees who have experienced discrimination can go to seek redress.
“I don’t want any child bullied, but if we pass a policy that doesn’t comply with other policies, nothing is accomplished,” Hazard said.
Edward Gent, a seventh grade English teacher at A.G. Wright Middle School, said he doesn’t think a statement sends a strong enough message of support for all students.
“You can’t keep stepping back [from the issue],” he said. “At some point, it stops being a compromise and starts being a cop-out.”
A survey conducted by the Stafford Education Association found that 91 percent of division teachers and staff want to see the policies passed.
Hazard said she doesn’t think there has been enough public dialogue between board members about the policies. The board was to have held a work session on the proposed policies, but the first scheduled work session was cut short and the second was cancelled.
Jamie Decatur, Griffis–Widewater District representative and a co-sponsor with Chase of the proposed policies, called this “poor leadership” on the part of Healy.
“The work sessions were punted by leadership,” she said. “It was never made a priority. It is very frustrating that the superintendent is being blamed.”
At several recent board meetings, Healy and Hazard have suggested that Kizner has not followed through on a promise made last fall to hold training for staff members after an October incident in which a transgender student at an area middle school was prevented from entering either the boys’ or girls’ locker room during a lockdown drill.
In an interview last month, Kizner said the discrimination policy and the October incident are two separate issues.
“I met with the administration [of that school] and eight months later, we haven’t had any issues,” he said. “I have done my part.”
“I took an oath that I will treat every child with the highest level of respect and make sure they feel safe,” Kizner continued. “Thirteen school systems in Virginia, representing half a million children, have adopted similar policies. I’m hopeful our students will receive the same protections.”
At this past Tuesday’s board meeting, Decatur, Chase, Garrisonville District representative Pamela Yeung and George Washington District representative Dewayne McOsker publicly thanked Kizner for his work in getting the new Anne E. Moncure Elementary School and North Star Early Learning Center open for the new school year, overseeing the effects of redistricting and keeping up high levels of public engagement.
“I joined the board to get a guy like that in that seat right there,” McOsker said, pointing at Kizner. “Dr. Kizner is great for Stafford County and he’s great for our kids.”