RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Policies for transgender students could soon change in schools across Virginia as Governor Glenn Youngkin leads an effort to overhaul state standards. 

A law passed in 2020 under Democratic leadership directed the Virginia Department of Education to create “model policies” to “address common issues regarding transgender students in accordance with evidence-based best practices.” 

Some argue Youngkin’s new rules prioritizing parental rights do the exact opposite of what that law intended, which was to create a more supportive educational environment for transgender students.

Even though the policy is being rewritten without additional approval from the General Assembly, at least one law professor thinks the Youngkin Administration has a chance of winning if the issue goes to court.

“Agencies are entitled to a fair amount of discretion in how they interpret statutes and, because we have fairly ambiguous or open-ended terms, I think that would sort of militate in favor of the Governor prevailing if there was a challenge to this,” University of Richmond Law Professor Jack Preis said. “The short answer is we don’t quite know for sure yet.”

Anthony Belotti, a transgender college student who helped craft standards finalized under former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration, said he was heartbroken when he learned that Youngkin is trying to reverse that work. 

“It felt like a punch to the gut to see something that I worked so tirelessly on that impacts so many students be honestly ripped apart in front of us,”  Belotti said. “Youth, in order to be respected in schools now, have to get a permission slip from their parents and forcing students to come out on any timeline that is not their own is unfair and dangerous.”

The new document from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) says parents must be given the opportunity to object before any in-school counseling services on gender are offered.

Unless a student is a legal adult, parents also have to greenlight any pronoun or name changes in writing. 

The new VDOE policy furthers that school divisions cannot force personnel or other students to refer to students “in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

Additionally, it says no local policies may encourage teachers to conceal important information related to gender from a student’s parent. 

“I’m excited about the new policies. I feel like they encompass parental rights and protect the rights of all students,” said Terra Lawrence, a mother in Hanover. “When you have a child, you want to have a say in their upbringing, in their education and in their values so I felt like the previous policy really didn’t protect that.” 

Lawrence said bathroom policies were at the top of her list of concerns with the old state standards. 

The new VDOE policy says, “Students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

Preis said that sentence doesn’t appear to change anything for transgender students. 

“Trans students who are worried about not being able to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity can still use the bathroom that they want regardless of this order,” Preis said.  “This order specifically recognizes that they have rights under federal law and it does not attempt to change any of those rights under federal law, nor could it do so even if it wanted to.”

Under the updated standards, Preis said some schools may have to alter athletic participation policies, which previous state standards didn’t specifically address. The Yougkin Administration’s policy now states, “for any athletic program or activity that is separated by sex, the appropriate participation of students shall be determined by sex. [School Division] shall provide reasonable modifications to this policy only to the extent required by federal law.” 

Meanwhile, Preis said a pending Supreme Court case could impact the implementation of this new policy by determining whether teachers have a constitutional right to refuse to use a student’s preferred pronouns. 

The Youngkin Administration expects an official public comment period to open on Sept. 26 and last for 30 days before the new policy takes effect. The document says, to comply, school boards must adopt policies consistent with or more comprehensive than the state standards. 

Preis said there is no specific enforcement mechanism or punishment outlined in the 2020 law. However, he said districts that don’t comply could be more vulnerable to lawsuits. 

Youngkin declined an interview request on Monday.