Bedford County School Board approves policy limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender

Bedford County School Board approves policy limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender

The Bedford County School Board voted Thursday to approve a policy preventing teachers from initiating discussions with students about sexual orientation or gender identity.

The policy, which was amended from a 2021 version, is the first of its kind in the state at the school board level, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. It’s also an example of a growing national debate about what teachers can discuss in their classrooms.

The board voted 5-1 to approve the policy update, titled “teaching about controversial issues.” The new language says that teachers may respond to questions from students about sexual orientation or gender, but can’t start those conversations outside of approved curriculum. 

One example that was frequently referenced in discussions about the proposed change had to do with questions that students might have about a teacher’s personal life after seeing a family photo in the classroom.

Under the initial language of the policy update, a teacher would not be able to engage in that conversation at all. Though the board members who wrote the policy said the update applies to curriculum discussions only, others had expressed concerns that the language was too vague and didn’t support students and faculty who identify as LGBTQ+.

The language was amended before the vote to say that the teacher can respond to student questions but should avoid being forthcoming about their life outside the classroom. 

The policy was last revised in fall 2021; prior to that it was last updated in 2012. 

The most recent version said that in teaching about “controversial topics,” instructors were expected to “provide instruction in an atmosphere that is free from bias, prejudice, or coercion,” and to keep related instruction to a level that’s appropriate for the students in question. It did not dictate how or whether teachers could discuss sexual orientation or gender.

School board members Marcus Hill and Christopher Daniels, who sit on the board’s intergovernmental affairs committee with the superintendent, proposed the updated policy for review at the board’s April meeting. 

Minutes from the March 2023 committee meeting, where a review of the policy was first discussed, are not included in monthly minutes archived in a Bedford County Public Schools Google Drive folder.

In a heated discussion about the language of the proposed policy at the board’s May meeting, Daniels stressed that parents should be the first to respond to their children’s questions about sexual orientation or gender, not teachers or counselors.

On Thursday, school board member Susan Mele cast the only vote against the policy change. In discussion before the vote, she raised concerns that the policy language may make it difficult to fairly determine whether classroom discussions are “reasonable” or “controversial.”

The ACLU sent a letter to the school board on June 6 warning against approving the policy change.

“By using incredibly broad terms to define its prohibitions, this provision invites discriminatory enforcement,” the letter says. “Anyone who discusses or acknowledges any aspect of LGBTQ+ identity will fear running afoul of the policy, while the myriad of daily explicit and implicit discussions of heterosexuality or cisgender identity will be assumed to be the default and thus permissible under this policy.” 

Hill City Pride, a nonprofit supporting the LGBTQIA+ community in the greater Lynchburg area, also issued a letter ahead of the vote. “Due to its subjective nature and a lack of clear guidelines, teachers will have no definitive way of knowing which conversations will be perceived as appropriate,” it wrote. “This will breed an environment of fear for educators, students and all who identify as LGBTQIA+, which will result in their silence and isolation.” 

School board chair Susan Kirby said she didn’t comment on the policy when it was first discussed earlier in the spring. “I do know there are a lot of homes in this county in which the teacher is the only one that a student feels safe going to talk to,” she said.

She added, “On the same token, I believe teachers should maintain professionalism and keep their personal life at home as much as possible.”

Some in the audience applauded the move after a public comment session that included mixed reactions from community members.

Amy Snead, a parent who identified herself as a member of the parental rights group Moms for Liberty, said during public comment, “If an issue arises such as gender identity or sexual orientation, the parents should always be the first conversation about this, regardless of anything else.” Critics of Moms for Liberty say it promotes conspiracy theories that children are being sexualized in school.

In his remarks following the vote, Superintendent Marc Bergin said that Bedford County Public Schools does not tolerate discrimination against staff or students “with regard to any of their personal characteristics” and that “school is and must always remain a safe space for everyone.”

The revised policy resembles a law passed in Florida last year to prohibit discussion of sexual orientation and gender in classrooms. Opponents of the legislation have termed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law; it is officially called the Parental Rights in Education law.

Pro-LGBT group Equality Virginia has called the Bedford County approval the state’s first “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” rule and has said it could lead to further limitations on classroom discussion. 

Some Virginia school systems have considered similar rule changes that reflect policies Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed since taking office last year. 

Youngkin, who has promoted the role of parents in education, has called for additional policies that would prevent educators from addressing students by a pronoun that doesn’t correspond with their enrollment documents and would require transgender students to use restrooms that correspond with their biological sex. The Virginia Department of Education is still reviewing public comment in response to those proposed policies.

Bedford County Public Schools has complied with a 2022 state law that mandates school systems have policies to notify parents about any curricular material that could be viewed as sexually explicit.

In Orange County, north of Charlottesville, the school board has tabled a discussion on whether to implement a policy requiring schools to notify parents if a student “self-identifies” their gender.

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