Stafford schools (copy)

Stafford Superintendent Scott Kizner has been more proactive in meetings than past school leaders.

Stafford County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner offered to share his “initial thoughts” on a question about his proposed policy to let transgender students use the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice.

“This is when I get myself in trouble, but you asked me,” he added at a recent meeting.

School Board member Patricia Healy spoke up: “Maybe you ought to talk to the lawyers.”

“I don’t think this is a lawyer question,” Kizner replied.

Healy had just asked about the possibility of letting concerned parents block schools from “counseling” their children on transgender-related issues. She was referring to proposed language that says students uncomfortable with the policy can talk with administrators and counselors, who may in turn “address the discomfort and foster an understanding of gender identity.”

Kizner said he worried about “labeling transgender as something that’s dangerous and we shouldn’t be talking about.” But he agreed to try to “clarify or soften” the language in an effort to ease some parents’ fears of schools indoctrinating their children.

“We have children that come speak to their school counselors about things they will not talk to their parents about every single day,” Kizner said. “And when we prevent that child [from doing so], I just ask you, what is the next issue? Is it going to be alcoholism, is it going to be financial stress, is it going to be a father hitting the mother?” A better idea might be to contact parents whose children ask about the policy and have a sit-down with the whole family, he said.

The exchange reflects Kizner’s willingness to speak frankly on a politically sensitive topic early in his tenure, a departure from the previous superintendent’s style. His recommended policy would be the first of its kind in Virginia, but some schools statewide already let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice, despite a lack of formal guidelines.

Former Stafford Superintendent Bruce Benson, who Kizner succeeded in September, also faced calls for greater LGBT protections, but took a more cautious approach. He rarely, if ever, commented on the issue publicly and sometimes declined to speak with media outlets at the advice of attorneys.

Kizner’s policy proposal stems from a widely criticized incident Sept. 28 in which a county middle school prevented a transgender girl from joining her classmates in the boys’ or girls’ locker room during an active-shooter drill. The girl sat alone in a locker room hallway because she is transgender, according to Equality Stafford, an advocacy group for LGBT students.

The School Board voted three years ago to prohibit the same girl, then a Hartwood Elementary School student, from using the girls’ restroom. Hartwood previously let her use the female bathroom, but some parents complained that allowing transgender students to choose restrooms opened the door for sexual predators and violated other students’ privacy rights.

In March 2015, the School Board discussed the matter behind closed doors and voted without discussion. Benson did not comment at the meeting, but told The Free Lance–Star afterward that he hoped to get more guidance from state legislators and the Virginia School Boards Association.

People spoke in support of the transgender girl the following month, but neither the superintendent nor the School Board commented publicly. The issue appeared to fade away.

Then, in September 2017, about 20 residents attended a School Board meeting to call for anti-discrimination protections for LGBT students. School Board Chairwoman Holly Hazard did not directly respond to the request, but read a statement broadly denouncing hate, prejudice and intolerance. The School Board formed the superintendent’s Equity, Diversity and Opportunity Committee a few months later and quietly voted this past May to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the student code of conduct’s anti-bullying provision.

But the active-shooter drill incident renewed the push for stronger LGBT protections, and Kizner quickly addressed the issue head-on.

“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,” he said at a public meeting in October.

Just two months later, he revealed the proposed policy, eliciting praise from LGBT advocates and consternation from others.

“As superintendent, I took an oath to follow the laws, which include prohibiting harassment and discrimination of any type,” Kizner said, reading from a written statement. “As an educational leader, I have a responsibility to raise concerns and provide solutions when I feel harassment and discrimination has or may occur. So I am raising the concern.”

In an off-the-cuff remark, Kizner acknowledged at a recent meeting that the policy may not win popular opinion. He said he’s not opposed to collecting more feedback, but pushed back at a suggestion to hold a public forum, saying it would be “remarkably unfair” to make transgender students and their families “defend something that they live with, they love and they respect.”

“They are minorities, and if there was a [referendum], I suspect the vote would be to not support this policy,” Kizner said. “That’s just my gut—I hope I’m wrong.” He noted that past anti-discrimination protections for minorities probably would have been voted down, too.

The School Board is scheduled to discuss the policy again at a meeting Jan. 8. The board could vote Jan. 22 at the earliest, though several School Board members say they want to solicit more public input before making a final decision.

Not everybody appreciates Kizner’s outspoken stance.

Stafford resident Luke Enns indicated that the new superintendent—who previously served as Harrisonburg’s schools chief—needs to learn more about the community.

“Stafford County has a proud history,” he said at a recent meeting. “The Marine Corps museum up the road is a great place to get a start, Dr. Kizner, and I hope you’ve got a chance to see the history of the county and the families that live here and serve our country and the values they share.”

School Board member Dewayne McOsker is not sold on Kizner’s proposal, but said he appreciates the superintendent’s willingness to put himself out there.

“Thank you so much for bringing this to us,” he told Kizner. “We hired you for a reason, and this is the stuff we hired you for—it’s to make the hard decisions.”

Kizner thanked School Board members for even letting him put forward the proposal and said he will respect whatever decision they make.

“This conversation in many communities would not happen, so I do thank you,” he said.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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