During a raucous, crowded meeting of vocal parents and transgender activists Thursday night, Fairfax County School Board in Virginia touted that adding “gender identity” to the county’s non-discrimination policy would make the county “a leader on civil rights issues” and likened the transgender policy change to the fight fought over desegregation.
“Friends, 50 years later we’re fighting the same battles that our fore bearers fought to provide equal access to our facilities for all of our students. The push for protections based on gender identity is the civil rights issue of our day,” Fairfax County School Board member Ryan McElveen said at the school board meeting.
The school board voted Thursday night to add “gender identity” to the non-discrimination policy for students and staff members who identify as transgender.
The vote did not sit well the audience. Prior to the vote, parents and activists were shouting and booing the board members as they spoke about the policy.
At one point, the school board chairwoman Tamara Derenak Kaufax began yelling at the audience, threatening to throw parents out of the room.
“I do have the ability to clear this room! If you would like to listen to what we are saying, then please listen respectfully,” the chairwoman told the large crowd.
When the audience refused to quiet down, the lone school board member opposed to the transgender policy change, Elizabeth Schultz, tried to intervene to calm down the crowd, the chairwoman rejected her appeal.
Schultz’s supporters in the audience then booed and grew angrier.
Schultz pleaded again to help calm down the audience. The chairwoman consented on the second attempt.
“I’m imploring you. You want to be here for the discussion that’s about to happen because you need to hear what is about to happen. I have a crystal ball and you owe it to yourself to hear what these people are gonna say,” Schultz pleaded with the crowd of parents before security could intervene by kicking them out of the school board meeting.
After hearing her request, the crowd muffled their comments and began to settle down.
Several parents spoke before the board with concerns about the rush to implement the policy change.
“If there is no evidence the policy will work, again, we raise the question ‘what’s the rush?'” a Fairfax County mother Jun Yuan asked the school board.
“I know you want to be the first to show that you care but when you push too quickly and there’s not full understanding of what you’re implementing, it can cause more problems,” Melinda Kelly, a mother of two students, said before the board.
During the discussion on whether the board should approve Elizabeth Schultz’s proposal to post-pone the vote, one board member shared concerns with Schultz about the many unanswered questions about the policy and the rush to implement the policy.
“Frankly the process we’ve used to get to this point is troubling and embarrassing. I have so many fundamental questions that remain unanswered… why is the board rushing to address this issue at this time? Why have we not followed our typical processes for policy development, implementation and public engagement as outlined in our strategic governance manual?” asked school board member Patty Reed.
Reed continued: “This issue was first raised at our forum on March 12, 2015 and was brought for new business April 23rd. A vote is scheduled tonight, as you know, May 7th. We clearly have caught the public by surprise and have not done justice to our established public engagement process… the comments that people are raising are ‘why has this not been publicized to parents for a school system that is so good at keeping parents updated through email, Facebook and other school resources? I was a little confused why I hadn’t heard about this vote and why it was not publicized. I can only come to the conclusion that FCPS did not want the parents involved in the discussion.'”
The school board member went on to point out that she received notes from parents asking why the transgender issue was being addressed now and not the pressing issues of “budget shortfalls and “less competitive teacher salaries.”
Reed closed her comments with contrasting the two month window of considering the transgender policy with the board taking “10 years of study to institute later high school start times.”
Board member Schultz said her opposition to the the policy change included the concerns of unanswered questions about the change and contended it did not contemplate the unknown costs “in face of an $8 million shortfall” in the county. She questioned the cost of “staff development, facility modifications, staffing needs and more.”
Schultz called it, “fiduciary malfeasance by the board to undertake any policy without understanding the germane cost associated with such action.”
McElveen, the board member who sponsored the transgender proposal before the board, admitted during the meeting that transgender discrimination has actually been a non-issue in Fairfax County schools.
“This board has never received a concern regarding a bathroom incident. We have never received concerned about a transgender staff member and we have never received a concern about a transgender student playing on a sports team. Never. This reflects how well our staff has handled these situations to date,” McEleveen said.
Policy change opponent Schultz questioned the rush to change the policy if there has not been discrimination issues in the county.
“The problem is in passing this. as we heard earlier, if there was a task force already underway, why is this motion before the board before our staff finishes the work of its task force? If we are already treating students and employees well, and as the maker of the motion, Mr. McElveen said ‘this policy will do nothing’ then why are we passing the policy before we know what is in it?” she asked.
The crowd of parents gave her a standing ovation.
One of the motivating factors for the policy change came to light in the school board meeting that the federal government has been pressuring school districts across the country to amend their “gender identity” policies otherwise The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education could recommend terminating federal funding to the county.
John Foster, the division counsel for the county, reiterated at the school board meeting that the county is being pressured by the federal government to implement the policy.
“The federal government has been very clear that they expect local school divisions to amend their policies to include gender identity,” Foster told the board.
After the proposal to postpone was rejected by the board and each board member expressed their stance on the policy change, the matter came to a vote.
All board members except Schultz voted in favor of the policy.
The following morning, Schultz appeared on a D.C.-based radio station reacting to the vote.
“What a shame that we fast-tracked a policy change of this magnitude, when as my colleague Patty Reed pointed out, it took ten years to talk about later start times and for five years we’ve talked about hiring an independent auditor for the school board – which we still haven’t done but in a matter of weeks, we effectively put this into policy and had no opportunity for public comment,” she told WMAL’s morning-drive radio show on Friday.
“The public let us know last night that they were very unhappy with us.”