This transgender bathroom issue has drawn national attention. Now a local school district is ‘split’ over it

On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the Gloucester County School Board to schedule a settlement conference with 19-year-old transgender student Gavin Grimm, who sued the school division in 2015 after being forced to use restrooms that did not align with his gender identity. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Virginia ACLU)
Gavin Grimm sued the school division in 2015 after being forced to use restrooms that did not align with his gender identity. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Virginia ACLU)

The Gloucester County School appeared starkly divided Tuesday over the prospect of ending the policy, provoking citations of scripture and the higher suicide rate among transgender teens. The district has drawn national attention for its transgender bathroom ban.

Concerns were also raised about the cost of a yearslong lawsuit.

The Gloucester County School Board had a public forum on a proposed policy to allow high school students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

No vote was taken. But the proposal comes just months before a trial over the current policy is scheduled in response to a lawsuit filed by Gavin Grimm, a former student who has become a national face of transgender rights.

“I’m sorry that folks are uncomfortable, but they’ll get over it,” Elizabeth Webster, 50, said in support of transgender students using bathrooms of their choice.

Webster said some people in the military had been concerned that “serving with African Africans would disrupt the unit (before desegregation). And you know what? It did disrupt the unit. And the unit got over it.”

But Kenny Smith, 67, strongly disagreed, holding up a bible as he spoke to the school board.

“These are biological facts about chromosomes and where we came from,” Smith said, generating significant applause.

He added: “I promise you there is a God who is going to ask you, ‘Did you make your decision by calling on me or did you make your decision by calling on other folks and other court rulings and other judgments?”

Grimm, who graduated in 2017, had returned to this semi-rural district outside Richmond to speak in support of the proposed policy. But it was his mother, Deirdre Grimm, who responded directly to claims about the bible, telling the crowd that God gave her son to her to “open people’s hearts and minds.”

Grimm has been suing the board since 2015 for banning him from using boys restrooms. He’s also suing to update the gender listed on his high school transcripts from female to male.

He and the American Civil Liberties Union claim the board’s position on both matters has violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution and other federal policies.

The board has argued that its policy did not violate Grimm’s rights but protected students’ privacy. It also fought unsuccessfully to keep his transcripts out of the lawsuit.

Grimm’s suit has followed a circuitous path that almost included a stop at the U.S. Supreme Court. But it’s now in U.S. District Court and before a judge who has already shown signs of support for Grimm’s cause.

Joshua Block, an attorney with the ACLU, confirmed Tuesday that lawyers for Grimm and the school board recently held a settlement conference.

Some have raised concerns about the suit’s legal costs. They include former school board member Kim Hensley, an attorney. She had voted against the bathroom ban policy in 2014 and brought up the cost issue at Tuesday’s forum.

“Just for billable hours, it’s got to be huge,” she said after the meeting.

For other school districts, the price has been steep, although mostly covered by insurance.

The Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin fought the bathroom issue in federal court for well over a year with Ashton Whitaker, a transgender high school student who identifies as male. The board ultimately settled, and its insurance carrier spent nearly $1 million.

Kenosha had taken its fight to a federal appeals court, which ruled that Whitaker should be able to use the boys bathroom. The board had also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court before settling last year.

Grimm’s suit is seeking coverage of his legal costs, among other things. Block, the ACLU attorney, declined to comment on the matter.

The Gloucester school board’s insurance carrier, VML Insurance Programs, also declined comment.

The Associated Press filed a request last year under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act seeking that information. Managing Director P. Stephen Craig responded that such information is exempt because the matter is still pending. He reiterated his position Tuesday.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.