Rockingham Co. school board revises policies to conform with Youngkin’s model, also creates school safety role

The Rockingham County School Board unanimously approved changes to five policies Monday night, officially revising its code to follow Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policies regarding students’ gender identities. This follows the board’s first vote last month to adopt those model policies in full.

Several of RCPS’s existing policies contradicted the model policies, and this change will formally bring Youngkin’s policies into effect in Rockingham schools. Board chair Matt Cross said the board wanted to clarify parental rights specifically in regards to the policy that determines who has access to student records

“There was some wording in there that kind of made us feel a little bit uncomfortable when it came to parental rights,” Cross said. “We wanted to make sure that that policy reflected that the parents are in complete knowledge of what’s happening with their children … I think we did a great job of winning this for parents and making sure that they’re gonna know exactly what’s going on with their children. There’s no gray area. We don’t like the gray area when it comes to parental rights.”

Other policies the board revised to comply with Youngkin’s model policies include:

The school board also updated its public comment policy to restrict eligibility to county and RCPS residents and stakeholders. It also bans signs at school board meetings, as well as obscenity, vulgarity and “other breaches of peace.”

Board creates school safety coordinator role and student conduct panel

The board approved the addition of a school safety and security coordinator to its budget, as well as the creation of a steering committee to oversee student conduct and discipline.

Cross said adding a school safety coordinator was one of his main reasons for running for school board. He said he’s wanted to add it ever since former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s school safety task force recommended that every school division in the commonwealth should do so after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2010.

This responsibility is currently placed on the shoulders of transportation officers, but Cross said one position should be focused on coordinating school safety on a county-wide level. That role shouldn’t fall to a school resource officer, but would be more of a safety manager, he said.

A steering committee — including Superintendent Larry Shifflett and Assistant Superintendent Doug Alderfer alongside several principals and administrators — will oversee student conduct and discipline. Alderfer recently presented a student conduct report to the board, detailing what kinds of violations RCPS is dealing with, including tardiness and skipping school, disrespect in classrooms, cell phone violations, tobacco and nicotine use, among other violations of school policies.

RCPS to work through potential funding crunch

RCPS will have about $9.5 million less in revenue for its 2024-25 budget. But chief financial officer Justin Moyers said he’s working to ease the system’s funding woes and is adjusting things to hold the net decrease to $4.6 million.

As it stands, Youngkin’s proposed state budget will cut RCPS’s funding by about that much, but that could change depending on the final version the state legislature approves later this spring. The school system will lose just under $1 million as COVID relief money runs out, too, but Moyers said he’s budgeted for that.

RCPS will receive about $74 million from the county — the same as last year.

Moyers said at the last meeting that the system’s initial expenditure requests come in around $185 million, $11 million more than the current budget.

Moyers said he is prepared to move some money around to help ease the system’s funding strains but will present those ideas to the board at a later meeting. Shifflett aims to present a budget draft to the board on March 11. 

Public comment stays divided on library books, model policies

The public comment period shifted to the end of Monday’s agenda following the previous full board meeting, during which the audience grew raucous as public commenters spoke about the board’s temporary removal of 57 books from school libraries.

Cross said the change was aimed at allowing the board to move more efficiently through presentations and the issues it needed to debate and vote on, while still providing time for public comment before the board moved into closed session. As before, the public comment period was still limited to 30 minutes, with each speaker allotted three minutes at the podium.

Monday’s public comment session focused again on the temporary book ban and the adoption of Youngkin’s model policies, with several people speaking both for and against the new board’s changes.

A student, Rex Fritz, expressed frustration that students haven’t been consulted on the recent policy changes and said the policies are targeted at LGBTQ students. Kate Lowe, an RCPS parent and a nurse practitioner at JMU, warned that the high suicide rate within the LGBTQ community is tied to the stigma and unacceptance of their identities.

“What they [LGBTQ students] are telling you is that your policies are targeting them,” Lowe said. “What this means from a public health standpoint is that in the course of your time on this school board … it’s not ‘if’ we will see a suicide of an LGBTQ student, it’s ‘when.’ And when that happens, I ask if you can look yourself in the mirror, if you can look at their parents, their teacher and their friends and say you did everything you could to protect them in their school community.”

In response to those two speakers and another who referenced a Bible verse regarding justice and righteousness, board member Hollie Cave, who proposed the temporary book ban, said she just wants to do what’s right.

“I love the students. I care what they think … I don’t like the fact that they feel like they have to get up here and identify themselves as queer students because I think that the word ‘queer’ means ‘strange,’ and I don’t think they’re strange. So my heart goes out to them that they even feel like they have to identify that way. I wouldn’t know them in public as any different than a normal human being,” Cave said. “When people get up here and they quote suicide rates, it doesn’t move me … I think one percent [suicide rate] is too much for any group of people … because one student, one person going, you’re right. That would matter.”

Cross echoed Cave’s statement and said he believes adopting Youngkin’s model policies was “the right thing to do” for all students and all parents. Despite the recent backlash, he said he’ll stand firm in his actions on the board.

“It takes a backbone like never before to sit up here and do what is right,” Cross said. “I think America is tired of politicians. They want people to go in and do what they said they were going to do … Trust me. When I give my word, I’m gonna do it.”

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