The Loudoun County School Board is moving forward with two initiatives to better protect the interests of minority students and teachers.
After hearing more than 25 speakers push the board to create an ad-hoc equity committee or task force and to enact new policies to ensure LGBT students and teachers are protected from bullying and discrimination, members last week signaled support for both efforts, although they continued debate on the best options for implementation.
The idea of creating an Equity in Education committee emerged from the debate over the School Board’s fiscal year 2020 budget, which includeda $200,000 addition to create a position tasked with overseeing equity issues throughout the school system and $100,000 to hire an equity and cultural competence specialist.
School Board members had stated their intent to establish a broad-based committee to examine equity concerns in coming weeks, but during the Feb. 12 meeting speakers lined up to urge immediate action.
Zerell Johnson-Welch, a former chairwoman of the district’s Minority Student Achievement Committee, noted that administrators have been highlighting their commitment to tackle equity concerns for a quarter century, but the same issues are being debated today.
Several speakers referenced an exercise at Madison’s Trust Elementary School, in which students reenacted the perils facing runaway slaves while teachers and administrators failed to recognize the offensiveness of the concept. The principal of Madison’s Trust Elementary School, where the obstacle course exercise occurred, issued a formal apology acknowledging its “culturally insensitive” nature, in a letter to students. “This is contradictory to our overall goals of empathy, affirmation, and creating a culturally responsive learning environment for all,” David Stewartwrote, adding the lesson would offered again with a more “appropriate and respectful” context.
Loudoun County NAACP President Pastor Michelle Thomas told the school board that was just one an example of systemic problems she sees.
“We can’t wait. There is a crisis going on in Loudoun County Public Schools,” Thomas said, adding that she’s heard 20 complaints about discrimination against black students since taking that leadership post just last month.
Superintendent Eric Williams said he understand the urgency to make improvements and was committed to the effort.
“People move to Loudoun from all over the United States and from countries across the world because they are attracted to the quality of life and the great schools in Loudoun,” he said. “But we’re also a county where equity has proven a challenge for many decades.”
Williams said an important next step would be to bring in experts to conduct a district-wide equity assessment, with outreach to administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members. The findings of that work could form the foundation of the new equity committee or task force.
“I support that concept, and I pledge the full support of Loudoun County Public Schools in doing the work necessary to support the work of this group,” he said.
Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), who chairs the board’s Legislative and Policy Committee, said she would present a plan to create an equity committee at the Feb. 26 meeting.
School Board members also were supportive of an effort to increase protections for employees and students who are part of LGBT communities, although there lacked consensus on how to accomplish that.
The Legislative and Police Committee recommended changes to the school system’s Equal Opportunity policy to add specific protections for ancestry, sexual orientation and gender identification.
The draft policy reads: “The School Board of Loudoun County affirms a commitment to the principle of equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, ancestry, color, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, marital status, age, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, and any other characteristic provided by law. It is the express intent of the School Board of Loudoun County that every policy, practice, and procedure shall conform to all applicable requirements of federal and state law.”
Speakers urged the board to enact the changes, saying LGBT teachers feel forced to hide their identities and fear losing their jobs, and students find little support to battle bullying and discrimination.
“Our students are desperate because they don’t have adult models. They have no models because our LGBTQ teachers have no acceptance,” teacher Andrea Weiskopf said.
A 15-year-old bisexual student from Farmwell Station Middle School said she hears offensive comments from students and adults, including her counselor.
“Nobody should have to go to school every day feeling the way that I and many students and teachers do. We don’t feel secure. We don’t feel accepted by our peers. We don’t feel like we belong. We don’t feel like people want us there. That’s really important to protect people from, because nobody should feel that way, especially in their jobs,” she said.
One speaker, and several School Board members, worried that the proposed policy would create other problems.
“What happens when a male gym teacher identifies as a woman? Does he have the right to enter the locker room when my 12-year-old daughter is in there?” asked parent Natassia Grover.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian) shared that concern, pointing out the policy appeared to move beyond employment protections. “By removing the word ‘employment,’ this does become a unisex bathroom, locker room and sports team policy. This does open Pandora’s box without preparation,” she said.
Chris Croll (Catoctin) said it was critical to provide more protections to LGBT youth who are more susceptible to bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts. “To me, this is about saving lives. If we can save one life, why wouldn’t we do this?” she asked.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said the focus seemed to be to stop the bullying of LGBT students, but they are not the only students subject to abuse.
“Students are bullied because they wear the wrong clothes. Students are bullied because they talk awkwardly. Students are bullied because they are socially awkward. Students are bullied because they don’t feel smart. Students are bullied because they don’t play sports. Students are bullied because they don’t belong to the right club,” she said. “And I know this because my child is one of these students. He does not fit into any of these protected classes.” Turgeon said her son was suicidal for many years and is still battling those demons.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) also said bullying is the root problem facing students.
“The solution starts at home and begins with a family telling their children that they need to respect everybody. And if someone came into my house and told me one of my children disrespected another kid for any reason, there’d be hell to play. My kids know that and they treat people with respect,” he said.
Sheridan noted that neighboring school district have already adopted similar nondiscrimination policies and said Loudoun wouldn’t be breaking new ground.
“It’s really important be able to be who you are, to be comfortable in your skin. To be able to dress the way you like to. To be called the name you prefer and the pronouns that you want and identify with. It’s not really a big ask,” she said.
However, school system attorney Stephen DeVita said that while the protection categories in the draft policy came from elements of state and federal law, the proposal was “an altruistic kind of statement of philosophy which could present problems in the implementation.”
Staff members recommended a review of model policies developed by the Virginia Public Schools Authority and other statewide organizations that were implemented in the other jurisdictions.
While no action was taken, Croll encouraged students with concerns to reach out as the School Board works through the options.
“We are listening,” she said.