Gender symbol

Marvin Stearns’ classmates questioned his use of the girls’ bathroom at Stafford High School.

“Why are you in here?” they would ask. “Boys aren’t allowed in this restroom.”

Stearns, a 2017 Stafford High grad who was born female but identifies as a man, said he never even attempted to use the boys’ restroom, considering another transgender boy with a beard was told not to. He’s thankful his drama teachers started letting him go to a single-stall restroom in the Theater Department.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like for anyone who didn’t have that [support],” an emotional Stearns told the Stafford County School Board Tuesday. “I don’t know why I have to fight for my right to pee. I just want to be a normal person. I don’t want to hurt anybody.”

Several years earlier, a transgender student named Brian experienced things differently at a county school 10 miles away. North Stafford High let him use the boys’ restroom and wear the male Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps uniform, even though he was born female.

“My impression is that kids were pretty accepting,” North Stafford counselor Barbara Smiley told The Free Lance–Star in 2015.

The contrasts at the two high schools show the need for blanket policies on the treatment of transgender students, some LGBTQ rights advocates say. That debate is front and center in Stafford after a county middle school prevented a transgender girl from joining her classmates in the girls’ or boys’ locker room during a lockdown drill.

She sat alone in a nearby hallway during the drill because she is transgender, Equality Stafford—which supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students—wrote in a recent Facebook post that has drawn national attention.

“I want you to stop treating me like I am a predator,” the transgender girl, who is also prohibited from using the girls’ restroom, said in a letter to the School Board. “It’s time for you to fix this.”

The School Board voted in 2015 to bar the same student from using the girls’ restroom when she attended Hartwood Elementary School, though she was allowed to use a gender-neutral employee bathroom. Hartwood previously let her use the girls’ bathroom, but some parents complained that allowing students to go to the restroom of their gender identity, rather than biological sex, opened the door for sexual predators and violated other students’ privacy rights.

Some LGBTQ advocates urged the Stafford School Board at a meeting Tuesday to list gay and transgender students in its nondiscrimination policy. None of the Fredericksburg region’s school systems explicitly protect LGBTQ students in their nondiscrimination statements, though Prince William County schools and others in Northern Virginia do.

Some residents like Stearns also seemed to push for a policy letting transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identities. Statewide, no school systems have such a policy, though some schools do let transgender students go to the restroom of their choice, Equality Virginia Director James Parrish said in an interview.

The Trump administration last year rescinded Obama-era guidance directing public schools to let students use bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

And in Virginia, the Gloucester County School Board is appealing a federal judge’s ruling this year in favor of a transgender student who sued over the system’s bathroom policies. The judge ruled in May that Gloucester’s policy barring the student from the boys’ restroom violated Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in public schools.

Parrish said some school systems want to adopt transgender-friendly bathroom policies, but are waiting for the court case to pan out. Nondiscrimination policies that include LGBT students are an important step, he said, but should be followed up with clear guidelines.

“We believe you are violating that [nondiscrimination] policy if you are not allowing students to use gender-affirming accommodations,” Parrish said.

A consistent policy would prevent cases where transgender students may be able to use their preferred bathroom in middle school but not in high school, he said. “It’s not fair to these families to have to renegotiate … every level of their school experience,” Parrish said.

Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania County, unsuccessfully proposed a bill in 2016 that would require transgender students to use the bathroom of their biological sex. The intent of the bill was to protect students’ privacy and prevent lawsuits against school boards, he said at the time.

The Fredericksburg school system does not have a formal policy on transgender students but addresses their needs on a case-by-case basis, Assistant Superintendent Marci Catlett said.

Stafford Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner drew applause Tuesday after apologizing for the treatment of the transgender girl during the drill. He plans to solicit guidance from the LGBTQ community and other stakeholders.

One parent, however, took issue with Kizner’s statement that the system would make policy changes “if necessary,” saying there should be no question about the need for a policy that protects transgender students.

Kizner told The Free Lance–Star the he’s open to a policy change, but said the system may be able to the accomplish the same goal without one. School Board members also expressed a willingness to rethink policies but offered no specific proposals.

“We’re not going to brush this off,” School Board Chairwoman Patricia Healy said.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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