Stafford schools (copy) (copy)

Supporters of the LGBTQ stand for the presentation of the colors before a Stafford County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Stafford County Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner said recently that principals and student groups have expressed support for his proposed policy on the treatment of transgender students.

But the School Board is in no rush to vote on the controversial matter and may host a public forum to provide more information to the community. The policy, which would be the first of its kind in Virginia, would let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms in alignment with their gender identities.

Kizner has cautioned against holding a public hearing with the sole aim of soliciting opinions of the proposal, saying it would be “remarkably unfair” to make transgender students and their families “defend something that they live with, they love and they respect.”

School Board member Jamie Decatur suggested hosting a “public forum” or “community event” that would be more of an informative discussion, as opposed to each side of the debate repeatedly stating their case. Kizner endorsed that concept and said the system could potentially invite legal and medical professionals to speak on the topic.

“I hear everyone loud and clear, and I really understand both sides,” Decatur said at a meeting Tuesday. “What I think we need to do now is come to a community event where, instead of regurgitating those things, we can ask questions and learn about what others are experiencing and maybe come together and find common ground. Otherwise, we’re just going to be listening back and forth ... and maybe being a little bit bullheaded as to our sides.”

The School Board has not yet scheduled a forum on the topic or said when it plans to take a vote. Some members suggested delaying action on the policy until they get past another politically sensitive matter: A proposed redistricting that would affect all of the county’s elementary schools.

The public comments portions of recent School Board meetings have drawn speakers for and against the policy, though proponents have outnumbered critics. Supporters say the proposal protects transgender students who are vulnerable to bullying and violence, while some opponents deem it an affront to privacy and traditional values.

Some people have also criticized language in the policy that says teachers must refer to transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns. Recently, a West Point high school teacher was fired for refusing to use male pronouns when referring to a transgender boy.

Stafford resident Susan Stimpson, a former chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, called that an “assault on our First Amendment rights.”

“I think it’s very reasonable for a teacher to agree to call a child by a name that a child wants to be called by, but to force a teacher or anyone to say a word that they don’t want to say strikes at the very heart of First Amendment rights,” she told the School Board.

Stafford Democratic Committee Chairman Ben Litchfield, who supports the policy, called that argument a red herring. Teachers, he said, are already required to use curriculum that may conflict with their core values.

“While they talk about the First Amendment, I believe in the 14th, which says that no state shall deny any person equal protection of the laws,” Litchfield said. “And Brown versus Board of Education was clear—separate but equal education has no place in our public schools.”

Kizner said he met with all of the principals to discuss the policy, adding: “Many spoke and everyone thought this is the right time, and they’re supportive.” Student groups have also indicated support, in addition to parent and staff advisory committees, he told The Free Lance–Star in an email.

At the same time, Kizner acknowledged that the policy protects a minority group and may not be favored by a majority of Stafford residents.

The 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.

Kizner blamed the incident on a lack of clarity from the school system. 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.

Other Stafford schools already let transgender students use the bathrooms of their choice, Kizner said.

Amy Adams, co-founder of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Stafford, said she’s fine with the School Board holding off on a decision until a redistricting plan is in place, so long as the discussion does not fade away. The School Board is scheduled to approve new attendance zones in late February or early March.

Adams also called Decatur’s proposed community meeting an excellent idea. “When you have that open communication and open dialogue with people … a lot of times they realize many of their fears are unfounded,” she said.

Decatur said that, whatever the outcome, “We do need to move forward with something.”

“Our teachers deserve guidance, our students deserve guidance,” she said. “They need it.”

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402