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Fact Sheet: Rights and Opportunities of Virginia Students Under Attack 

As Virginia students head back to school, many face restrictive new rules adopted by the Youngkin administration in the past year. In districts following the new policies, transgender students will have significantly curtailed rights. In some districts, students will lose access to books previously available in their libraries. If Republicans win control of the Virginia legislature this fall, many more culture-war rules will be in place before the next academic year.

Eliminating rights of transgender students. In the past, the state Department of Education permitted transgender students to use school facilities and participate in school programs that matched their gender identity. It also required schools and teachers to use the names and pronouns that students requested, without securing parental approval. Governor Youngkin’s Department of Education eliminated these rights in Model Policies it adopted this July. The new Policies require students to use school facilities and, unless parents request otherwise in writing, names that are consistent with their sex as assigned at birth.

Under Youngkin’s Policies, students have no voice in decisions about their identity at school. The Youngkin administration describes its policies as protecting the rights of parents against government encroachment, but students’ wishes are ignored. They have no rights.

The ability to choose names and use facilities consistent with their gender choice are deeply important to transgender students. Suicide attempts among transgender youth are roughly 4 times higher than among American youth as a whole. Conversely, one study found suicide attempts among transgender students who could choose their names and pronouns were 65% lower than among transgender students who lacked those rights. Suicide attempts among transgender teens are also reduced when their school environment is safe and their self-image is accepted. Youngkin’s anti-trans policies, if widely followed, will inflict real suffering on the state’s transgender youth.

The administration’s authority to enforce its Policies is unclear. Some school districts have refused to comply. The Virginia Attorney General has announced that compliance is required, but there is no enforcement mechanism. What is clear is that Republicans in Virginia want to deprive transgender students of any autonomy over their school identity, and if Republicans take control of the state legislature after this fall’s elections, they will be in a position to clarify state law and achieve that goal.

Book banning. In the past year, Virginia enacted a law requiring parental consent before a student encounters sexually explicit material in class or in completing assignments. The statute is worded vaguely, and some Virginia school districts are relying on it to justify removing books from their school libraries altogether. One superintendent in favor of the bans has complained that many books currently in school libraries have not been adequately vetted, implying that libraries should be closed until they review their books. Nationwide, book-banning in schools has become a feature of the culture wars. From mid-2021 to mid-2022, over 2,500 bans were imposed, resulting in the removal of over 1,600 different titles.

When books are removed from school libraries, they are no longer available even to students whose parents consent to their use. The rights of parents are not protected, as Republicans supporting book-banning claim, but rather are altogether denied. As one reporter said, “[t[he issue went from people thinking their children shouldn’t read certain books to trying to stop other people’s children from reading certain books.” Should the Republicans capture the Virginia legislature this fall, the number of books banned in Virginia schools and the number of Virginia students whose access to books is constricted are likely to rise substantially.

Distorting history. Over half of the books banned from school libraries nationwide in the last few years dealt with racism or racial history. These bans are part of the larger culture-war effort to rewrite the nation’s history, limiting references in U.S. history classes to slavery and racial discrimination and removing accounts of accomplished and historically important Black figures. The most extreme example of this campaign is the new curriculum adopted in Florida, which includes the preposterous and offensive claim that in some cases slavery was actually helpful to Black people.

Youngkin has aggressively promoted the sanitization of our racial history. His first executive order upon taking office prohibited Virginia schools from teaching “inherently divisive concepts,” by which he appeared to mean any discussion that might cast prior racial practices in an unfavorable light. Virginia Republicans suspended plans to broaden the executive order through new legislation when they realized that Democrats in the state Senate would block it, but if the Republicans retake control of the Senate and retain control of the House of Delegates this fall such legislation is likely to pass. Students in Virginia schools would be subjected to an incomplete and sharply distorted account of our history.

What can you do to help protect students and their educational interests in Virginia? Plan to devote as much time as possible during the upcoming campaign season to help elect Democrats throughout the state. Write postcards in support of progressive candidates. Phone bank or knock on doors. Check the Arlington Democrats’ website to learn about a wide variety of other volunteer opportunities. Don’t let Virginia become Florida.

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