WINCHESTER — Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are currently not protected by the non-discrimination policies in public schools in Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties.
But school divisions elsewhere in Virginia do have such policies in place that protect 35% of students and staff on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,
In the Winchester, Frederick and Clarke school districts, sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly included in any of their non-discrimination policies. In February, Loudoun County Public Schools, the third-largest school district in Virginia, passed a motion on a 5-4 vote by its school board to include gender orientation and gender identity in the school division’s non-discrimination policy.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, tweeted at the time that she was “extremely proud” of the Loudoun County School Board members who voted to add LGBT protections to their non-discrimination policy. Before the Loudoun board’s vote, Wexton told The Star in a written statement that she strongly supports expanding non-discrimination policies in Winchester, Frederick and Clarke public schools to include these students and staff.
“We should ensure safe school environments for LGBTQ staff and students across our Commonwealth,” Wexton said in the statement.
Steve Edwards, Frederick County Public Schools coordinator of policy and communications, said the division’s non-discrimination policy only references those protected classes identified in federal law.
However, because of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s 2015 opinion on the authority of school boards, localities are able to vote and decide on non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Clarke Superintendent Chuck Bishop said that although his school division’s policy does not explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity, it is committed to creating equal access to educational opportunities for all students.
“Further, we will thoroughly investigate any claims of discrimination in our school system,” Bishop said.
Winchester Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum’s response was brief regarding the specific lack of LGBT protections in the city school division’s non-discrimination policy.
“We have not reviewed this policy in recent years, no specific reason as to why or why not,” he said.
Vee Lamneck, deputy director of Equality Virginia, which is a nonprofit group seeking equality for LGBT people in Virginia since 1989, said Equality Virginia has been focused on getting Virginia school divisions to update their non-discrimination policies to be more LGBT-inclusive for the past five years.
Lamneck has found that school boards often do not update their policies because they don’t think it falls within their purview to create LGBT protections for students and staff.
“Unfortunately, many school districts don’t realize they have that authority,” Lamneck said.
In other cases, some school administrators have told Equality Virginia that they don’t think their school districts have any LGBT students, Lamneck added.
According to a 2017 U.S. youth risk behavior surveillance study from the Centers for Disease Control, 13.3% of heterosexual students and 47.7% of gay, lesbian and bisexual students nationwide said they seriously considered suicide.
In another 2017 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), it found that 65% of LGBT students in Virginia surveyed experienced at least one form of anti-LGBT discrimination at school during the past year.
Lamneck said the data shows Virginia schools are not safe for most LGBT students and adding LGBT-inclusive language in non-discriminatory policies could make a safer learning environment for these students.