FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (7News) — Fairfax County parents organized a rally at 5:30 p.m. at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church prior to the school board's vote on whether the district will expand a policy that says students may be suspended for what FCPS calls "malicious misgendering." The intent, according to board members, is to reduce bullying and what could be perceived as hate speech.
"This is a violation of our children's first amendment rights," said one protesting parent. "We should not be for compelled speech, no one should."
After a late night debate over the adoption of the district's latest Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook which largely focused on the future of cellphones in FCPS classrooms, the board decided to pass the amendments with a number of follow-on options.
For over a year, FCPS has had a policy in place that would suspend high school and middle school students for up to five days if they don’t use their peer’s preferred gender pronouns, or if they call the student a name they no longer use.
Board members said the 2021 policy had not caused any issues.
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Still, some parents rallying before Thursday's meeting were concerned that the school board aimed to expand that policy into county elementary schools. An initial proposal including adding K-3 or early elementary students in the policy with a possibility of discipline including suspension.
"My initial concern was that this is kind of like a compelled speech," parent Maria Sherwell said prior to a Board meeting in May. "It is requiring children to say something that they may or may not be comfortable with."
Meanwhile, many in Fairfax County’s LGBTQ+ community feel this policy is needed.
"It seems hard to me to see it as other than people promoting bullying of trans and nonbinary kids," said Robert Rigsby, Co-President of FCPS Pride. "Maliciously calling somebody something that they tell you hurts them is bullying."
Initially, it was proposed to separate grades K-3 from 4-6 when it comes to levels of punishment. The concern was the thought that younger elementary students need a nurturing environment and teaching about how actions impact others as opposed to suspension.
The FCPS assistant superintendent of the Special Services Department said the decision instead was to revert back K-6 as opposed to the originally proposed K-3. She said that was based on feedback from stakeholders.
"I do think that was progress because there were significant concerns about that," said board member Karen Corbett Sanders.
Protestors spoke out about what they felt was a lack of stakeholder involvement in crafting the policy. Several board members agreed and pushed for better collaboration and engagement with parents in this and future policies.