School started this month, and Virginia Beach is one of two school districts in the Commonwealth who will have a fresh set of policies in place to protect LGBTQ students and teachers for the first time this year.
Joel McDonald, a member of the VA Beach School Board, said talks around the issue had been brewing since his first year in office in 2013.
But the state-wide policy at the time wouldn’t allow for school districts to pass inclusive policies outside of what the General Assembly had granted, something enforced by Virginia’s then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
But McDonald pushed for the rules anyway, making sure the issue was at the for front of the school boards legislative agenda. He even worked towards getting the GA to expand the Virginia Human Rights Act to include LGBTQ protections. But that never came to pass.
McDonald, with fellow board member Leonard Tengco, co-authored a resolution supporting the policy change, but lacked the legal authority to enforce it.
Then the conservative AG Cuccinelli left office and was replaced by the more progressive Mark Herring. Herring, in March of this year, handed down an opinion freeing local school boards from having to follow the GA on adding LGBTQ protections – a dramatic change form the old policy.
“Since that time, the legal landscape has changed significantly,” said McDonald in an interview. “The language of the Obergefell decision (same-sex marriage), and AG Herring’s opinion were a big part of allowing the policy changes to move forward.”
It wasn’t long before they were drafting the new policy, following in the foot steps of Fairfax County who passed similar protections earlier this year.
But McDonald said they were lucky to not have faced the same public-outcry from conservatives in pursing this policy change. Where Fairfax had elected officials speaking out in opposition to their move towards inclusion, Virginia Beach had a fairly uneventful vote.
“I believe that it’s important that we’re able to attract and retain the most qualified and dedicated teachers and education professionals, and to ensure the safety of our students by providing welcoming environments where they can best learn,” said McDonald during the policy hearing. ”But making sure discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity doesn’t happen in our schools.”
“As we do this, which is a great step forward for Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS)… I’m encouraging us, as a board, and everyone in the community to continue working with our legislators in the General Assembly to make that happen.”
“VBCPS has been making changes to be more aware and inclusive the last couple of years,” said McDonald on how he hopes the new policy will impact student and teacher’s lives. He said there are more supportive programs behind Gay Straight Alliance clubs, and Guidance Counselors have received professional development in handling sensitive LGBT issues.
And while McDonald thinks VBCPS students and employees were safe from harassment before, he’s glad to see this kind of policy become more solidified in his district.
“The awareness has greatly increased and LGBT student and staff voices are being heard,” he said. “… Students see, in black and white, that we are aware that they exist and that we are there to ensure that schools are safe and welcoming for them.”