School board talks sexual orientation, gender identity

There was no question that the Montgomery County School Board wanted to change the language of their equal opportunity policy during Tuesday’s meeting by adding protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — the problem was how to word the changes in the most effective way.

While the proposed change in wording included sexual orientation, several citizen speakers caused the board to doubt whether that was inclusive enough during the public address portion of the meeting.

Kathy Duncan of Christiansburg took the stand to say that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals need to be protected and respected.

“Please do not leave out the T for transgender in this process,” Duncan said.

Michael Sutphin of the Blacksburg Town Council also spoke in support of protecting LGBT individuals.

“Many do not realize that in Virginia you can be fired or not hired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” he said.

Sutphin added that despite not having protection under state law these employees need to know when they come to work that they would have respect. To be as all-encompassing as possible, he wanted to see both sexual orientation and gender identity included in the school board’s resolution.

His sentiment was echoed by Sally Kopakowski of Blacksburg, a parent of children who went through the Montgomery County Public School system.

Kopakowski came to read a letter from a transgender man who could not make it to the meeting due to a work conflict. His letter read that while he’s been fortunate enough to have positive reactions from people around him through his hormone changes and surgery, others have not had such a positive experience.

After reviewing the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors’ approved resolution to expand the definition of prohibited discrimination in state government employment, the school board set out to make changes to their own policy.

What threw a wrench into the process was the added sentiment from the speakers that gender identity needed to be included alongside sexual orientation.

School board member Phyllis Albritton asked if the language needs to be more specific, or if sexual orientation assumes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

“Since it’s our policy, and we want to be more specific, we need to state that,” said Chair B. Wendell Jones.

School Board Attorney Brad King said he clearly saw that they want to add gender identity to the policy, but suggested they wait until the next meeting so they can have the exact wording they want. King wanted a chance to take a look at what other school systems have done.

“I’m not all that concerned about what other school systems are doing, I think it would be great to be at the forefront of this,” Albritton said.

Vice Chair Joe Ivers agreed with Albritton, but said he wanted to take a step back and make sure the wording is right.

Superintendent Brenda Blackburn said the timing isn’t the best because if they hold off until the next meeting it won’t make it into printed material for the fall. She said that changes could be added to the online material.

Albritton stood her ground that the school board should go ahead and add gender identity to the policy, and school board member Drema Foster said she wouldn’t vote to do that; although she didn’t disagree with it being added to the policy, she wanted King to have time to investigate the wording that would most suit the school system.

Ultimately Albritton motioned to add gender identity to the policy and was seconded by Ivers, but the motion failed with Jones, Foster and Jamie Bond voting against and Sarah Woolsey and Penny Franklin absent.

The original proposed changes that only included sexual orientation were then passed with Jones, Bond and Foster voting in favor, and Albritton and Ivers against.

The school board plans to address that addition of gender identity at a future meeting.

By Deanna J.P. Clark