Voices’ Statement on the Replacement of the 2021 Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools
October 25, 2022
RICHMOND, Va. – Voices for Virginia’s Children opposes the proposed changes to the 2021 model policies for the treatment of transgender students in Virginia’s public schools. We recommend that the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) rescind proposed changes and encourage the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) and local school boards to reject the proposed policy changes. We believe that there is power and potential within each young person in the Commonwealth, and extensive research documents the positive correlation between embracing a student’s personal identity and student success. Changes that would cause a student to express themselves differently in a school environment threaten the psychological safety, mental health, and academic outcomes of students. Proposed guidance that creates divisions in how young people are treated based on gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion are in violation of Virginia law and should not be tolerated by our public institutions and our public sector leaders.
Our concerns with the proposed changes rest on the potentially devastating effect they could have on the mental and physical health and safety of children and youth in the Commonwealth’s public schools by failing to affirm the personal identities of transgender students. We are also concerned about the negative impacts the policy changes would have on the Commonwealth’s education, health, and child welfare systems.
Ensuring that each child in Virginia can live up to their full potential means that school environments and communities should be safe and supportive for children and youth. There are significant data points and examples demonstrating that transgender and gender non-conforming students experience physical violence and hostile school environments at a greater rate than their peers. National surveys by GLSEN have found that more than 76 percent of LGBTQ+ students report being verbally harassed, and transgender and gender non-conforming youth were twice as likely to report feeling unsafe at school. Feelings of stress and lack of psychological safety can manifest as mental health, behavioral health, or physical health concerns.
Creating school environments that support and protect all students in their learning is another way to ensure each child can live up to their full potential. We believe in school environments that support feelings of belonging and reduce emotional stress. Bullying, a sense of not belonging, and emotional stress have been demonstrated to negatively affect student attendance and educational performance. (Aragon et al. 2014; Kosciw et al. 2020) Schools and educators should be provided with resources and support to promote positive school climates and to promote belonging.
Concerns Regarding Mental Health and Proposed Policy Changes
There is significant evidence that demonstrates concerns for student mental health are increasing and that LGBTQ+ students are more likely to indicate mental health concerns than other populations. Voices advocates for accessible, available mental health care for children throughout the Commonwealth. Proposals in the model policies that force students to advocate for their gender identity and their pronouns in the school setting will put additional stress on students and can create additional mental health needs.
Mental health professionals in Virginia have noticed a link between the timeliness of mental health referrals and school calendars. Mental health referrals often increase when young people return to school and at different points in the school year with increases in social and academic pressure. These direct links between schools and mental health would point to best practices that reduce stress in the school environment rather than create additional stress for some students. Reducing stress in the school environment requires additional investments in mental health resources in schools, additional training for teachers and administrators to foster more supportive environments and wraparound supports for students, including peer groups, after school opportunities and health and mental health services connected to schools.
Connections between Student Identity, Belonging and School Success
There are documented linkages between a student’s feeling of connection to school and academic success. All students, no matter their identity, should feel connected to their school environments and possess a sense of belonging among peers, teachers and administrators. Students who experience belonging feel valued, accepted and included at school. When students are accepted they are more engaged, intrinsically motivated, and have a more positive attitude towards education. (Kosciw et al., 2018) Best practices to promote supportive school structures include the avoidance of homophobic language, the encouragement of gender-affirming language, attire, and activities, and the expectation that schools will take action against reports of victimization and discrimination.
Student Groups and Student Expression
We are concerned that efforts to make the school environment more challenging for transgender students will also put a damper on student expression and groups that encourage student expression. Voices for Virginia’s Children has always strongly encouraged civic engagement and advocacy by students. We are concerned that efforts to limit expression by transgender students may have a spillover effect into limiting student organizations, such as Gay-Straight-Alliances or GLSEN chapters where students can connect with likeminded peers and speak openly on issues related to gender identity, minority groups and sexual orientation.
Potential Impact on Other Child-Serving Systems
As advocates for children and youth across multiple systems, we believe that VDOE’s model policies could also impact other child-serving systems that are already stretched thin and under resourced. We are concerned that additional stresses in school environments could lead to additional needs for services from the mental health system, which is already experiencing longer than normal waiting lists due to the national emergency in children’s mental health. And we are concerned that additional sources of conflict between children and parents around gender identity and school could make home environments and parent/caregiver relationships strained potentially causing some children and youth to attempt to run away or enter the foster care system.
In conclusion, the proposed changes send a message that student identity is not valued and that differences are not welcomed in Virginia’s public education system. Virginia has achieved a well-regarded education system that deserved to be built upon and invested in, not dismantled by proposals that seek to create divisions and harm individual students. We hope the Board of Education will recommend the Department of Education rescind the model policies.
Voices for Virginia’s Children is a nonprofit organization committed to improving and protecting the lives of Virginia’s children, youth, and families. We believe every child should have equitable access to the resources, services and opportunities needed to thrive. For us, that means advocating for sound policies, educating the public, mobilizing communities, utilizing data to determine unmet needs, and leading with compassion. Our aim is to always close the systemic gaps that fail children, prioritize racial justice in policymaking, and ensure every voice has a role in shaping their future.