Community Perspective: In defense of gender policies at HCPS

A contributed perspectives piece by Heidi Pennington and Sara Snyder

As parents of HCPS students and members of the Harrisonburg community, these writers wish to respond to Deborah Figliola’s op-ed published in June 2022. In her opinion piece, she attempted to justify the lawsuit she and five others are bringing against HCPS. Ms. Figliola, and the Arizona-based organization promoting the lawsuit (euphemistically named the “Alliance Defending Freedom”), object to HCPS’s policy to support students who wish to use names or pronouns that differ from their official records. In contrast, we strongly support the HCPS policy. The district’s policy is explicitly student-centered, and it is a team approach led by trained counselors. It is a flexible way to support all students as they learn and grow, and especially those students who may need extra support. 

We have read the HCPS training slides in the complaint letters and Superintendent Richards’ responses to the complaint. Here is our reading of the HCPS policy: If a student desires to use a name or pronoun that suggests a different gender than is on their official records, teachers must do two things. First, teachers must involve a counselor to support the student. Second, teachers should refrain from “taking the lead” on contacting parents unilaterally, instead allowing the support team to weigh in. If the student’s parents are not yet aware of their child’s wishes, then this team—led by the counselors and including teachers, administrators, and the student—can have that conversation with the parents or guardian. The policy ensures that the student is the focus of this process.

It is important to know that the six plaintiffs have not been able to cite any cases in our district in which students have requested changes that their parents did not already know about. To our knowledge, there has yet to be a case in HCPS in which these—or any—teachers are faced with the situation they are now suing over.

It should not be controversial for a public-school policy to insist that trained mental health professionals take the lead on addressing issues about students’ mental health. And yet, this lawsuit objects to precisely that practice. The lawsuit proponents claim they object to the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the current HCPS policy. However, even a cursory look at the training slides undermines such a characterization. This policy prioritizes the unique individual student by involving mental health and administrative staff in figuring out what approach will work best for this student and this family and this situation. This policy is the opposite of “one-size-fits-all.” 

Ms. Figliola also asserts that the policy requires teachers to lie to parents. This claim, too, is a mischaracterization of both the letter and the spirit of the policy. Asking a teacher to refrain from calling up a student’s parents immediately, and instead to consult with counselors, administrators, and the student themself, is a far cry from telling teachers that they must lie. To assert that this student-centered approach is the same as “deceiving” parents is inaccurate at best, and disingenuous at worst. 

We believe that every student has a fundamental right to feel respected, safe, and valued in our schools. No HCPS student should ever have to fear that their teacher will violate their trust by “outing” them without their consent. But this is precisely what the plaintiffs are asking to be allowed to do.

Certainly it is best for students to have the full and informed affirmation of their families when seeking to understand themselves: on this we believe we can all agree. Whether or not students have this affirmation at home, it should not be up to any individual teacher, guided by their personal opinions, to determine how and when a student comes out to their families. Teachers should never be expected to make such life-altering decisions for their students: that is a burden teachers should neither be allowed nor forced to carry. Ensuring that teachers are not saddled with even more weighty responsibilities—particularly when it comes to a student’s mental health—is sensible and equitable. 

The HCPS policy on student names and pronouns is a flexible, responsive, student-centered team process that respects all students and their families. We will continue to support HCPS in resisting this frivolous lawsuit.

Heidi Pennington has lived in the Harrisonburg community for almost ten years and is proud to call the Friendly City home. She works full time and has two young children.

Sara Snyder is a Harrisonburg resident of over 5 years. She works full time and has two school-aged children. 

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