New VDOE Policies Are Pro-Parent, Pro-Child

Laura Bryant Hanford | Fairfax County Times

Something magical happens to the human heart when we become parents. We don’t turn perfectly wise (I wish). But suddenly, inextricably, we are gripped by a love that compels us day in, day out—for a lifetime–to secure our children’s health, happiness, growth, and safety. 

The Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) new model policies on transgender students acknowledge this truth while correcting the critical error made by the last Administration: removing the right of parents to be involved in their children’s lives. As a long-time Fairfax County Public School mother of five, I heartily welcome these new policies.

Parents are best placed to promote their child’s interests. In the words of Clare Huntington and Elizabeth Scott (Fordham Law Review), “[s]tate deference to parental rights is warranted not because parents are infallible, nor because they own their children, but rather because parental rights…promote child wellbeing.” As Martin Guggenheim wrote in the Yale Law Review, “the most important way to protect children’s individual interests is to maximize the authority of parents to make individualized decisions for and about them. American constitutional law sensibly treats children the way parents and adults who care about, and love children do outside the law…we make decisions for them based on our sense of what is good for them. Moreover, we serve children best when we allow parents, above all other possible candidates…decision-making power.”

We don’t need a law degree to know this: it’s simply common sense shared by parents of all parties and beliefs. Most Virginians oppose schools hiding gender transition; the great majority of reader responses to a recent New York Times (NYT) article on hiding transition in schools demonstrate this nationally. Appropriately, in recognition of the diversity of Virginia families, the policies take no position on what decisions are made, simply on who makes them.

Children do better by every metric when parents are involved. Gender questioning is highly correlated to autism, trauma, depressionanxiety, body dysmorphia, and suicidality. Complex decisions about treatment—including the use of names and pronouns, which can lock in gender dysphoria–should always include parents. 

Pediatrician Erica Li, who specializes in the care of hospitalized children, calls it “unthinkable to deliberately drive a wedge between a patient and her parents.” Dr. Erica Anderson, a transgender doctor with decades of experience and the former president of the U.S. Professional Association for Transgender Health, warns of the harm to children when outsiders triangulate or pit them against parents. In an amicus brief filed in support of parents protesting the secret transition policy of Montgomery County Public Schools, Dr. Anderson categorically stated that “transition is a major event in a youth’s life, and parents must be involved.”  

The debate over pediatric gender transition is intense and growing, as highlighted by the prestigious medical journal BMJ among others. Parents may be surprised to learn that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines are not drawn from the accepted gold standard for evidence-based medicine, a formal “systematic evidence review” of all relevant studies. For years the AAP has refused member requests for such a review. The U.S. is an outlier, with other nations conducting these reviews and dramatically curtailing pediatric transition as a result. In light of all this, it is egregious that the former policies implemented instant and secret transition in schools.

The new policies reestablish the ability of parents and educators to work together. Interestingly, the most widely approved NYT reader comment was by a teacher opposing secrecy. The truth is, whether dealing with bullying, a mental health crisis, or questioning their identity, children are best served when the adults in their lives come together to support them. 

The policies support existing law for cases of suspected abuse, directing that medical information not be shared if the disclosure will threaten the safety of the student. The former policies wrongly treated parents as abusers by default. To quote another widely reader-approved NYT comment,“[T]hey can’t have it both ways. Either the student is not in danger, and the school should inform the family of the student’s request to be called by a different name and/or pronouns, as this is a fairly major event in a child’s life that family should be aware of, or the student is in danger, and schools have mandated reporting rules for suspected abuse.”

In fact, concealing vital knowledge from parents about their children’s lives destroys their greatest protection. Secrecy isolates and has a domino effect, opening the door to malevolent actors. The harrowing ordeal in 2021 of an Appomatox girl at the hands of sex traffickers was precipitated by her school keeping secrets about her gender identity. 

In sum, the new Virginia Model Policies rebuild the partnership between parents and schools that every child needs. Governor Youngkin deserves our thanks for restoring to our children their true “safe space”—parents. 

Laura Bryant Hanford is a Fairfax mother with a background in human rights advocacy and policy. Her article was first published in the Fairfax County Times on July 27, 2023.

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