Friday, December 9, 2022

How are Historic Triangle schools addressing gender identity?

After a teacher in West Point was dismissed when he refused to call a student by that student’s preferred gender pronoun, residents in Williamsburg and York County may be wondering how their schools districts might handle a similar situation.

“Schools have the right and the legal obligation to ensure that all students are treated with equal dignity and respect by school employees,” said Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no compromising when it comes to respecting students’ rights and not stigmatizing them.”

On Thursday, the West Point School Board met to discuss the dismissal of a West Point High School French teacher, Peter Vlaming, after he refused to call a student by that student’s preferred male gender pronouns, according to a news release from Vlaming’s attorney, Shawn Voyles.

Vlaming cited religious beliefs for not using the student’s preferred pronoun and the school division approved a decision for his dismissal on Thursday.

“What I am concerned about is that situations like this come down to a story about religious rights or ‘snowflake students,’” said Elizabeth Losh, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at William & Mary. “I think it’s more about creating a healthy learning environment for transgender students.”

The West Point School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In Williamsburg-James City County schools, there is not currently a policy that specifically addresses gender identity, said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC. Some of the schools do have clubs and organizations that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied community such as the Gay-Straight Alliance at Lafayette High School.

Losh said it was ally organizations, such as GSA, that create safe spaces for LGBTQIA communities and help to promote change within the division.

“School districts often accommodate students on an individual basis rather than formulate formal policy, even if formulating those formal policies might actually be the best way forward,” she said. “With these organizations you can see a change going from bottom to top instead of just a top-down scenario.”

WJCC schools did not respond to requests for comment regarding the division’s practices in regard to gender identity.

But as awareness for LGBTQAI students’ rights grows across the nation, Farrar said a lot of school districts will probably have to start thinking about how their schools address this.

“It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “The bottom line is no one should feel like their rights are violated and you would think that’s common sense but I guess not.”

York County Public Schools also does not have a specific policy that addresses gender identity, said YCPS spokeswoman Katherine Goff. But the division does have policies regarding equal educational opportunities and nondiscrimination for students.

“No student, on the basis of gender, shall be denied equal access to programs, activities, services or benefits or be limited in the exercise of any right, privilege, advantage or denied equal access to educational and extracurricular programs and activities,”  the policy says.

York County’s policy also states that faculty and staff are trained on how to address complaints and comply to the policy, which Losh said could be key in creating a safe space for transgender students.

“These students are already exposed to so much,” she said. “And when a student is humiliated or mocked by an authority figure like a teacher, it gives other students permission to follow that lead.”

YCPS also did not immediately respond for comment about the divison’s practices specifically in regards to gender identity.

But Farrar and Losh agree that as transgender issues come to the national forefront, school divisions will have to reconsider how their policies address them.

“It seems like the administrators are trying to create a welcoming student environment,” Losh said. “But there is always more that can be done.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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