In what was a much-anticipated first regular business meeting of the new year on Jan. 10, the Loudoun County School Board voted 5-4 against adding LGBTQ-specific protections to the public school system’s employment discrimination policy.
An amendment adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes was initially proposed by vice chairman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) on Nov. 29, but some board members balked at adding to the policies beyond what was present in state law. The board moved to table the motion during its Dec. 13 meeting, ostensibly because legal counsel was not available to review it and provide input.
The school board meeting room in Ashburn was filled to capacity, and many people stood outside or watched monitors in nearby overflow rooms. Of those who spoke on the LGBTQ issue, 24 were for adding new protections and 18 against.
Sheridan read quotes from emails the board received in support of protections from and remedies for discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. She also read from emails against the policies, which she described as hateful.
She ended the testimonial by reading from a mass email distributed by former Sterling district supervisor Eugene Delgaudio. “Ultra liberal Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) moved to hijack the public school system to spend millions of tax dollars to promote the transgender sexual practices agenda,” Delgaudio said in his email.
“That’s right, I moved to protect a group and a community from what I just read. To be able to go to work and to go to school and be part of our community without fear of rejection, harassment, and discrimination,” Sheridan said. “I stand by it. I see you, I hear you and I speak for you and I may not have a majority with me tonight, but I will continue to use my voice and my position to stand with you.”
Beth Huck (At Large) thanked people who sent emails that were respectful and attempted to provide constructive feedback. She said she agreed with those who said LCPS should not tolerate discrimination, but some of the emails were evidence that anti-LGBTQ discrimination exists.
“When I decided to run for this position, I ran as a parent not as a politician. That was my slogan. I pride myself in staying true to that, so the mom in me wants to protect,” Huck said. “While a world where our differences can be embraced and appreciated by all would be wonderful, it’s just not the world we live in right now.”
Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said it’s not the school board’s job to create new protected classes and LCPS should wait until the Virginia and U.S. Supreme Courts rule on these matter before adding new protections. Debbie Rose (Algonkian) agreed with DeKenipp.
Rose also said that she received no emails detailing specific instances of discrimination or harassment. Joy Maloney (Broad Run) countered, saying she had personally met LCPS teachers afraid to come out because they are not protected. She also said she wears a rainbow lanyard as a sign of allyship.
“We need people to be allies, not to punt (the issue),” Maloney said.
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said there will always be vulnerable groups and he did not support adding more protected classes.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said he was conflicted because he was concerned about pending litigation against school systems that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, but was also moved by speakers — particularly current students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said she would not support adding protected classes.
“I am not in favor of establishing policies to mandate human goodness. LCPS is a loving and very inclusive environment,” Turgeon said. “I love everyone and I accept everyone but I think we need to move beyond mandating what we’re doing based on the laws that are established by this country.”
Newly elected chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said all bigotry disturbs him, but he has seen that Loudoun does not accept bigotry. High schools like Freedom and Dominion have varied diversity programs, largely because the leadership in the county is teaching students tolerance, Morse said.
At the end of the board’s discussion, Sheridan made a plea to her colleagues, saying that she hopes they will make themselves open to hearing from LGBTQ identifying teachers and staff about their struggles. She said the reason some board members did not receive testimonials from teachers and staff was because those employees felt they were not supported by particular board members.
Sheridan also spoke with Virginia General Attorney Mark Herring (D), who told her that the Virginia Constitution permits the board to add the protected classes.
Sheridan, Huck, Maloney and Marshall voted in favor of adding the LGBTQ-specific protections to employment discrimination policy, and DeKenipp, Turgeon, Morse, Hornberger and Rose voted against adding the protections.
After Sheridan’s motion failed, Hornberger offered an amendment to add a paragraph stating what LCPS actively practices, as follows:
“The Loudoun County School Board seeks to cultivate a high performing team of professionals focused on its mission and goals. It therefore values merit and excellence with its workforce and encourages the highest level of professionalism for all its employees. The school board also recognizes and values the diversity of the students and broader community it serves and encourages diversity within its workforce.”
That motion passed unanimously, and will appear in the LCPS Equal Employment Opportunity policy.
The majority of those speaking against the proposed LGBTQ policy addressed potential privacy violations if transgender students are allowed to use facilities that align with their professed gender identity, and the county would be opening itself up to lawsuits.
“The board has made sure LCPS is inclusive,” said Loudoun County Republican Committee chair Will Estrada. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”
Those speaking in favor of adopting the proposed policies addressed the discrimination and harassment LGBTQ-identifying students and staff face. Adopting the policy would send a message that LGBTQ individuals are normal and valued. Among the speakers were parents of LGBTQ-identifying students as well as students themselves.
“Accepting myself would have been infinitely easier if I’d had an adult role model who was open and proud of their identity and I fear one of the reasons this was not the case is the lack of a policy protecting LGBT teachers in their own classrooms,” Loudoun Valley High School senior Jacob Coleman said.
Proponents also reminded the board that trans people are among the most targeted by discrimination and violence, and there have been no recorded cases of trans women attacking people in women’s bathrooms.
Some addressed Del. Dave LaRock’s column in The Tribune, saying that in judging LGBTQ-identifying teachers as non-acceptable role models and that being gay or trans is a choice, LaRock demonstrates precisely why a policy protecting these identities is needed.
“We’re not asking for special rights, we’re asking for the rights afforded to everyone else,” LCPS student Sneha Sudhaka said.
Potomac Falls alumnus Ryan Wells, who wrote a rebuttal to LaRock that was published in The Tribune, also addressed the board. Wells opened his remarks by quoting Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes acceptance speech where she said everyone loses when the powerful use their position to bully others.
“In this case, you the school board are the powerful. You have the authority in your hands to help give legal protection to staff and faculty who are fearful to express who they are,” Wells said. “LGBTQ employees should be allowed to be open about their lives especially because they can help guide these LGBTQ youths who are struggling, by empathizing and relating to them at a level other teachers cannot.”
“You have the power to protect these amazing individuals by seeing them, by acknowledging them and by protecting them,” he said.
Some speakers reminded the board that Herring said school boards have the authority to add protected classes, and that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently made sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes for state employees.
Speakers also said that there is evidence that policies like these reduce the risk of suicide among LGBTQ-identifying students, and that if even one life was saved the policy would be worth it.
“How can we compare money to the value of human life,” Potomac Falls High School alumnus Noah Black said.
Over 100 speakers also spoke on behalf of John Brewer, the Dominion High School principal who has been dismissed due to possible knowledge of an former band teacher’s inappropriate behavior toward students. Speakers testified to Brewer’s reputation as a dedicated, caring and professional principal and asked the board to reinstate Brewer. No one testified against Brewer.
After hearing nearly three hours of public comment, the board moved to hear the Vision 20/20: Proposed Action plan the next meeting.
The board unanimously approved amendments to both charter school agreements delaying the implementation of the annual Indirect Cost Rate by one year.
The board also decided on amending its general harassment and discrimination policy. Two versions of an updated policy were up for discussion — Version A, which would add race and age to the policy in addition to sex, and Version B, which would add a more specific definition of sexual harassment, including protection against harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity as a part of Title IX.
Marshall proposed adopting Version A and Morse seconded. Sheridan proposed adopting Version B and Huck seconded.
The motion to adopt Version B failed 3-6, with Sheridan, Huck and Maloney in favor. The motion to adopt Version A passed 7-2, with Huck and Sheridan opposing.