This guest blog post was written by Chris Berg, a software developer from Hanover County. He is married to his high school sweetheart, is a father of two, and has recently become an advocate for his nonbinary child who attends school in Hanover County.
Up until this year, I’ve never been the kind of dad that showed up at School Board meetings. I had never participated in a protest, never spoken at a School Board meeting, and I had never really talked to the school administration. This year, as my youngest child started their freshman year of high school in Hanover, all of that changed. My youngest child is a nonbinary student. That doesn’t make me love them any differently, but it completely changed how I show up for them.
I haven’t ignored what happens every day in school since my child came out. I know the kind of names my kid gets called. I know that teachers and administrators turn a blind eye when it happens. But this year has been different - this year our School Board is actively working against kids like mine who are transgender or nonbinary. Time and time again, the School Board has not only made poor decisions but made obvious choices that indicate they do not care about my child.
For me, it started in November of 2021. There was a School Board meeting scheduled to hear feedback from the community about the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) model policies about the treatment of transgender and nonbinary students. Both of my kids wanted to go. This directly affected my youngest child and their friends and was something they were passionate about. We didn’t go to speak, just to show support and help represent the transgender and nonbinary students of Hanover. I honestly don’t know how the School Board could sit and listen to the students and parents who spoke at the meeting, describing what it felt like to be a transgender and nonbinary student in Hanover County, and not feel for them.
Despite there being a state law passed in 2020 requiring all 133 Virginia school districts to adopt policies consistent with or more comprehensive than the VDOE’s model policies before September 2021, Hanover decided in November to not even adopt their own, watered-down policy after they missed the mandated deadline. In December, they again ignored continued testimony from parents, students, and teachers and chose inaction over action. And then came March of 2022. This felt different, this wasn’t inaction - this felt like an attack.
In March, the Hanover School Board voted to allow Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to provide them with free legal advice on their Equal Educational Opportunities Policy - a policy that directly affects transgender students in Hanover County. This is an organization responsible for anti-transgender legislation, anti-LGBTQ lawsuits, and that has earned the label of an anti-LGBTQ hate group from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Of all the groups that Hanover County could have chosen to provide assistance with their policies, this was the most offensive choice possible. There are any number of highly experienced groups, such as Equality Virginia and Side by Side Virginia, which would have provided Hanover advice, but they weren’t consulted. The School Board could not send a clearer signal that they have no respect for the transgender students of Hanover County.
After the School Board’s actions in March, I started doing more than just attending meetings. I got in touch with other parents and I joined parent support groups who were interested in the same things. Our family participated in our first protest and my child subsequently received their first-ever suspension for the protest. I have spoken in support of the VDOE model policies at a Board of Supervisors meeting and two School Board meetings, yet both continue to ignore my ask that my child be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
That brings me to today. It’s the end of the 2021-2022 school year. With the exception of a small change to allow students to register their name and pronouns with the school, school policies regarding transgender students remain unchanged. Hanover County is still breaking the law. They’re still consulting with ADF regularly for legal advice. Despite there being extensive, well-written guidelines provided by the Virginia Board of Education, transgender and non-binary students of Hanover County are still subjected to discrimination and stigmatization.
Some students are lucky enough to have someone in their life that is supportive and has the time and knowledge to fight with the school to make small changes for them. But, without policies in place, students who aren’t in this situation continue to view their school as a hostile environment.
To the students who don’t feel safe at school, or who don’t have a safe space to go, I want you to know this. Despite the harsh realities of this year, there is an active group in Hanover County that continue to advocate for you. There are parents, teachers, allies, and students in Hanover who are and will continue to fight for you. We are as much a part of Hanover as anyone else who lives here. This isn’t just about bathroom access. We are committed to ensuring a safe school environment - one that includes transgender and non-binary students.