By Bridget Manley, publisher
More than a year after the state required local school boards to adopt policies protecting transgender students against discrimination, the Rockingham County School Board is still trying to figure out how to implement those policies.
The Rockingham County School Board has not formally adopted the Virginia Department of Education’srecommendations, saying in a press release, “Rockingham County Public Schools believes that current policies align with the many federal and state legal obligations involving schools.”
But for transgender students who attend Rockingham County schools, the quest to be treated equally has been painful.
And one outspoken student said the Virginia Department of Education’s recommendations would address the issues he faced over the last four years.
Cody Saunders, an 18-year-old who came out as transgender during his freshman year at Broadway High School, said he didn’t get much support from teachers or from the administration, leaving him to fend for himself.
“It was not great. No one really understood it, even my close friends,” Saunders said.
It was then that he began to question the school’s policies regarding the use of his chosen name on transcripts and other school paperwork, as well as using the men’s bathroom.
Meanwhile, the issue has spilled out of the schoolhouse and into heated public debates. Over the summer, the debate in Rockingham County got contentious as school board meetings were inundated with adults angry about the proposed policy changes. Last month, for instance, the issue came up in the school board meeting as some speakers during the public comment period said they didn’t believe someone could change the gender to which they were assigned at birth.
That has only compounded the stress of transitioning for students like Saunders.
“It’s not a conspiracy,” said Saunders’ mother Ashley. “He’s not sitting around saying ‘How can I make people feel uncomfortable today?’ He’s applying for college and trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. Everything is so normal and boring and average about our lives. So, to walk out into the open and have people thinking there are horns growing from our heads — like, whoa.”
‘Had to learn to protect myself’
Cody Saunders said after making the decision to transition, he kept hitting barriers.
“I wasn’t really allowed to do anything that would help me feel better about transitioning, and it was really hard to be confident in my identity because I was not allowed to be confident,” he said.
Cody spent the next four years creating his own support system of select teachers and friends, while relying on his “survival instincts” to get through high school, such as when someone would call him by his original name instead of Cody — which is sometimes referred to as being “deadnamed.”
“When I did get deadnamed in class, teachers and a lot of students did not really stick up for me at all. I had to stick up for myself, pretty much like, 99% of the time,” Cody said. “No one else protected me, so I really had to learn how to protect myself.”
Ashley Saunders, who has spoken at many Rockingham County meetings in support of antidiscrimination policies, said Cody’s first two years of high school were spent in a constant state of worry.
“Cody was going through it, his freshman and sophomore year,” Ashley Saunders said. “We didn’t know how to get him to walk through the doors of the school. He was asking to not go to school all the time. We were seeing the psychiatrist all the time.”
It got to the point that she was afraid to go into his room to wake him up for school out of fear that he wouldn’t wake up, she said.
“He had never said he was going to harm himself but because he had no shimmer in his eyes, I worried that I was going to go upstairs and wake him up, and he wouldn’t be there,” she said. “I still have nightmares about it.”
Identification records and deadnaming
Identification records have become a source of pain for transgender students, who say that the use of their deadnames on official documents can be traumatic and can instigate bullying and harassment from other students.
It’s often a lengthy and time-consuming process for minors to change their names legally. They must have written consent from both parents by a notary, live in Virginia for at least six months, and schedule a hearing to go before a judge and complete the process.
When students are transitioning, their legal name and sex assigned at birth remain part of their educational records.
Under the Virginia Department of Education’s recommendations, school records should be modified to maintain the student’s legal name and sex assigned at birth as sensitive information in their student records. Those records would require additional privileges to access, making it harder for anyone within the school system to misgender or deadname a student.
The recommendations also include separately using the name and gender consistent with each student’s gender identity as additional information that is used in school-related documents.
Cody Saunders said he kept asking school administrators to change his yearbook name, email address or other official documents to reflect his chosen name.
“I was just told ‘No’ when that was not the policy. There wasn’t a policy, and my principal made one up on the spot,” he said.
Cody says he eventually went above Broadway High School administration and contacted his district school board representative, but nothing changed.
Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Oskar Scheikl said the district is still working on adopting policies that are comprehensive, as the Virginia Department of Education has outlined, but also broad enough to be applied on a case-by-case basis.
“Ours will address the issue broadly,” he told The Citizen in an interview last month. “It will address all the issues that VDOE addresses — maybe more. It doesn’t mean the language has to be as detailed.”
The district, in its July 23 press release about the policy in progress, said the goal will be to preserve “the privacy, dignity and respect for the student” while also being “consistent with policy and the School Division’s legal obligations.”
“We work with families to determine what the family’s needs are where that student is — in terms of what increases their level of comfort, their level of privacy,” Scheikl said.
For many transgender students, keeping their former name private is central to their identity. And calling a transgender student by their chosen name can reduce their chance of suicide by up to 65%, according to a study by the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Jen Jones, assistant director of programs and client services for the Shenandoah LGTBQ Center, said validating someone’s chosen name can be lifesaving.
“It is literally suicide prevention,” Jones said. “One of the most hurtful things is being deadnamed and being misgendered and people deciding that they know better who this young person is.’”
Dignity in bathroom use
The Virginia Department of Education also has recommended all students should have access to all facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
Saunders said when he first came out, he asked school officials what the policy was for bathroom use and was told he could use men’s dressing rooms and bathrooms if he started hormones or got sex reassignment surgery.
But Ashley Saunders said it is nearly impossible to find a doctor willing to start hormone therapy or perform surgery on a minor.
“You would be hard, hard pressed to find a trans man under the age of 18 who has had top surgery,” she said. “Holding trans students to a rubric created by cis-gendered people who don’t understand what it is to be trans, and then finding out that they are making it up as they go — to make it hard — is frustrating.”
School officials allowed Cody Saunders to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office, but if that office was locked, he would have to use the women’s bathroom.
“To me, it felt like they were saying ‘Your child is an inconvenience. and we are going to give them the hardest possible route to living fully as themselves at school because we don’t want to deal with it,’” Ashley Saunders said.
During Cody’s senior year last spring, he turned eighteen and started testosterone. He reported back to the school that he had followed their guidelines on bathroom use and asked to be allowed to use the men’s bathroom. He was eventually told there was a single use men’s bathroom on campus that he could use.
Scheikl said the district seeks to adhere to state requirements but avoid one-size-fits-all approaches.
“We’re obviously following legal protection, but not every transgender student wants to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity,” he said. “Some prefer a private option, and we can offer that. We can also offer private options of course to other students, who want more privacy, so I think it’s more about treating all kids the same way.”
Scheikl said it’s not clear how detailed the policies should be, according to the law the General Assembly passed in 2020 and the education department’s policy.
“Ultimately, of course what it comes down to is, how is a transgender student treated in the school on a day-to-day basis,” Scheikl said. “I don’t think there’s a valid complaint if we treat the student exactly how we should treat that student, and the policy just isn’t that detailed … What matters is if it creates an environment that’s hostile and discriminatory.”
Cody Saunders said when he heard the General Assembly passed the law last year, he was skeptical that the county school system would adopt the recommendations.
“I didn’t find comfort in that,” he said. “And I’m seeing it now. I was correct.”
Meanwhile, Saunders has started his freshman year in college and hopes that transgender students receive better treatment in the future. But he wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer or divisive figure — he was just trying to be himself.
“Whether I’m inspiring people or making people angry, I’m literally just existing,” he said. “I’m literally like, reading a book. I’m going to school. The idea of me is either very inspiring or very upsetting, but I’m literally just living.”
— Contributor Logan Roddy added reporting to this article.
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