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FCPS leaders reflect on progress and setbacks for transgender student equity

Chesterbrook Elementary School staff celebrating Pride Month (via FCPS)

(Updated 4:20 p.m.) A contentious meeting over acceptance of transgender students in Loudoun County Public Schools has Fairfax County officials eyeing their own policy and pushing for more equitable regulations to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.

The Loudoun meeting, which discussed a new policy that requires trans students be treated respectfully and allowed to use restrooms and play in sports that align with their gender, comes months after Fairfax County Public Schools adopted similar new regulations in October.

A spokesperson for FCPS said the regulations adopted in October are still undergoing review to ensure they align with state guidelines. An FCPS spokesperson said all regulations are reviewed annually to ensure they are in compliance with new state legislation.

The new regulations grant transgender students access to various facilities consistent with their gender identity and effectively prohibit dead-naming students — using pronouns or names in records that don’t reflect the student’s gender identity.

“They’ve been mulling about it for a few months,” said Robert Rigby, a Latin language teacher at West Potomac High School and co-president of FCPS Pride. “Many students were thrilled. There was a blast of happy messages with multiple exclamation points. They were ecstatic after years of being dead-named in online platforms and in grading and by substitutes. Suddenly, they could just talk to their counselor and get it changed.”

Rigby said there was an “enormous relief” among students. Staff training started in March to prepare and educate teachers about the new regulations.

FCPS had previously added gender identity to the school system’s non-discrimination policy in 2015. Rigby said several factors over the last year helped push FCPS into codifying protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students, crediting:

  • Gavin Grimm’s recent victory when the Supreme Court rejected a Gloucester County school district appeal of a lower court decision that found the schools had violated Grimm’s rights
  • State legislation requiring local school districts to have policies adhering to how individuals identify their gender and requiring access to bathrooms and locker rooms associated with their gender
  • The election of the first openly gay school board member Karl Frisch

“These protections are long overdue,” said Frisch. “If we are truly committed to fostering a caring and inclusive culture, gender-expansive and transgender students must be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else. They must be made to feel safe and accepted.”

Others in Fairfax County leadership, including Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay, rebuked the comments made during the Loudoun school board meeting.

Rigby, who has taught at West Potomac High School since 1999, said faculty and parents, along with some students who felt welcome, have helped advocate for the changes, but student advocacy can be sometimes hindered by concerns about subjecting students to humiliations like those on display at the Loudoun meeting.

“Students advocate to us, but quite frankly it’s not incredibly safe and can be very alarming for young LGBTQIA to speak openly at School Board meetings,” Rigby said. “There have been dreadful things said and doxxing, so we caution children and their parents: when you speak publicly, this might happen.”

Rigby said the Loudoun was one of the worst he’s seen.

“We’ve had some dreadful meetings in Fairfax over the years, the worst being May 7, 2015 when they updated the non-discrimination policy,” Rigby said. “It also happened in 2002 when we were talking about a harassment policy. We’ve seen this happen in our county, but Loudoun was worse than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Still, Rigby said overall there’s been remarkable progress in the attitudes of many in the school system over his last two-decades of advocacy.

“I’ve seen attitudes in teachers, parents, and students take a big change,” Rigby said. “It’s changed dramatically. It’s a change beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s relieving and frustrating. I was discussing with a friend last night, another advocate who is a school psychologist, just how far we’ve come and how wonderful it is. It’s taken a long time. There’s an awful lot of work left to do.”

Rigby said FCPS Pride and other organizations are trying to focus now on offering more rounded care for students who may not receive support at home.

“We’re turning our eyes now to children who are housing-vulnerable, who aren’t welcome in families,” Rigby said. “Fairfax is definitely setting up structures to help families and children come to agreement… The school system is putting together these structures to help kids at school and at home.”

Photo via FCPS

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