The transgender girl sat alone in a hallway, facing a wall, as her classmates huddled in the girls’ and boys’ locker room during an emergency drill at a Stafford County middle school.

She had never felt so humiliated.

At first, teachers told her to sit in the gym with another teacher as they debated where she should go. Then, they instructed her to sit in a locker room hallway, near a door and away from the other students.

The students were in a P.E. class at the time of the lockdown drill.

“If there was someone armed in my school, I would have been the first one gone,” the student wrote in a letter read aloud by family friend Joni Wilson at a Stafford School Board meeting Tuesday. “I felt like an afterthought. If the whole thing wasn’t bad enough, the embarrassment caused me to have a panic attack in front of everyone.”

She added later: “I want you to stop treating me like I am a predator. It’s time for you to fix this.”

Equality Stafford, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, wrote in a Facebook post last week that teachers prevented the student from entering the girls’ or boys’ locker room because she is transgender. Since then, the issue has received national attention and outrage.

Scott Kizner, the superintendent of Stafford Public Schools, said he apologized personally to the student for the Sept. 28 incident at an unidentified middle school. He and School Board members reiterated that apology and the need for change at an emotional meeting Tuesday, after hearing from about 20 residents who spoke in support of protections for LGBT students.

“We did not live up to my unwavering expectation that every child and adult—regardless of race, religion, color, disability, gender and sexual orientation—is treated with respect and dignity and for that I apologize to the student, the family and the Stafford community,” Kizner said at the meeting.

At least some Stafford schools require transgender students to use employee restrooms or bathrooms reserved for their biological gender. The School Board expressed a willingness to make things better for LGBT students, but did not approve any changes.

Kizner, who started the job last month, said the system will review its procedures and make unspecified policy changes if necessary. He plans to solicit guidance from the LGBT community and the system’s Equity, Diversity and Opportunity Committee.

Kizner told The Free Lance–Star that letting individual schools come up with their own solutions, with input from students and families, might be a better approach than adopting a blanket policy. He clarified that he is not opposed to a policy change, but thinks the school system may be able to accomplish the same goal without one.

“I’m not opposed to good policies that make the schools more inclusive and transgender accepting and provide protections,” Kizner wrote in an email to the newspaper.

Several School Board members grew emotional as residents—some of whom are transgender—voiced the need for more inclusive policies. Equality Virginia member Leslie Cook said the school system can be a leader rather than a follower.

“Don’t miss this opportunity,” she said. “Our kids need you.”

The School Board limited the public comment period to 70 minutes and said only those who signed up to speak could make remarks.

School Board Chairwoman Patricia Healy said, “We’re all very proud of our schools, but something happened that we’re not proud of.”

“And I appreciate Dr. Kizner not pointing a finger at someone,” she added. “It’s not the staff. It comes back to this board because it is a matter of policy.”

Kizner said the teachers did not act out of malice, attributing the incident to a lack of clear direction from the school system.

The transgender student also said it was not the teachers’ fault, writing that they were only doing what they were told. She said she was banned from using the girls’ restroom at her school several years ago when she was 10.

The student did not identify the school, though the School Board previously dealt with a widely publicized controversy over a transgender student who used the girls’ restroom at Hartwood Elementary School. The School Board voted in 2015 to require the student to use the boys’ restroom or an “alternative private facility,” such as an employee bathroom, according to the meeting minutes.

School Board member Jamie Decatur said she felt comforted by Kizner’s apology, and supports the Stafford Education Association’s request for training for teachers on LGBT issues. “The time to have these conversations isn’t now, it wasn’t then,” she said. “It was a long time ago. Ignoring it isn’t making our children feel safe or better educated.”

Asked in an interview whether he thinks the transgender student should have been allowed to take shelter in the girls’ locker room, Kizner said students should go to the nearest secured room regardless of their gender.

“If there’s a real intruder … we don’t then start saying, ‘You go to the boys’ room; you go the girls’ room,’ ” Kizner said. “We would say, ‘Go to the nearest secured room.’ ”

He added later: “With drills, we learn to do things better. And this is a good example of a drill [where] we learned we need to do it better, and that’s my commitment.”

Equality Stafford’s Facebook post did not say which middle school the transgender student attends and nobody identified the school at Tuesday’s meeting. One news report erroneously identified the school as “Stafford County Middle School,” leading to at least one post directed at Stafford Middle School’s @WeAreSMSpartans Twitter handle.

“So who is presumed to be the more dangerous—a lunatic with a gun or a trans child escaping from one? Now come on teachers @WeAreSMSpartans think about this reallyhard,” the Twitter post stated.

Stafford Middle replied: “So you are aware, there is no Stafford County Middle School. We value and respect all of our students in SCPS!”

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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