On paper, the changes to the Fairfax County Public Schools family life education curriculum approved by the school board might seem minor, more a matter of semantics than substantial policy changes. But the story that Catherine Velkoff--daughter of former Fairfax County School Board at-large member Ted Velkoff--shared ahead of the board’s vote during its June 14 meeting suggests otherwise.
In 2011, the South Lakes High School graduate spent two weeks in a hospital recovering from a suicide attempt.
She recounted for a full audience in Luther Jackson Middle School’s auditorium how she had an allergic reaction to the antidote doctors gave her when her liver started shutting down and how her mother slept in a chair by her side the whole time she was recovering.
“I am here tonight because no other family should go through what mine did and no children should go through what I did,” Velkoff concluded. “Thankfully, I am now under the care of an excellent psychiatrist, but not everyone gets the help they need in time.”
Velkoff, who identifies as “queer,” says she wanted to share her experience to illustrate how much having family and community support matters to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth.
She believes that even an action as small as substituting the term “sex assigned at birth” for “biological gender,” as FCPS now will after the school board’s vote, can have a profound impact on people’s lives.
Forty percent of respondents to a report published by the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2015 said that they have attempted suicide in their lifetime, nearly nine times the attempted suicide rate of the U.S. population at large.
That number is higher for transgender people with disabilities, 54 percent of whom reported having attempted suicide in their lifetime.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, family support is strongly associated with positive outcomes, while rejection leads to negative outcomes with 49 percent of transgender people who had been rejected by their families attempting suicide compared to 33 percent for those who had not been rejected.
“I think every step that we can take as a community to make queer and trans people feel more included is a step that we can take to help prevent some of the mental health crises that we are seeing all across the country,” Velkoff said. “What I was hoping was that, by sharing a personal story, it would allow some of the school board members and hopefully some people in the audience as well to realize that these are real people that we’re dealing with.”
Replacing the term “biological gender” with “sex assigned at birth” for lessons focused on sexual orientation and gender identity is one of several changes proposed by the Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committee in its 2017-2018 Annual Report of Recommendations.
FLECAC advises FCPS’s K-12 health, physical education, and FLE curriculum coordinator on instructional development and implementation.
As part of a review of FLE lesson objectives requested last year by the school board, FLECAC recommended the inclusion of instruction regarding pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, an approach to reducing the risk of HIV infection that involves daily medication.
The committee also recommended the implementation of instruction on opioid and heroin use prevention for 11th and 12th grade students outside of the FLE curriculum, though an amendment proposed by School Board Member-at-Large Karen Keys Gamarra expanded that to also include alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
The school board approved the FLECAC report by a 10-0 vote with Springfield District Representative Elizabeth Schultz and Sully District Representative Thomas Wilson away from the table.
Despite the board’s final vote, FLECAC’s recommendations did not receive universal approval.
FCPS received 1,318 emails during the public comments period on the report that lasted from May 10 through June 8.
According to a compilation of community input attached to the school board agenda for June 14, the most frequent comment was opposition to the use of the term “sex assigned at birth,” which was mentioned in 941 emails.
The board also received more than 800 emails objecting to FLECAC’s recommendations for including instruction about PrEP, removing language characterizing abstinence as the only 100 percent effective method of preventing sexually transmitted infections, and removing members of the clergy as a suggested trusted adult for discussing concerns about sexual orientation or gender identity.
After a motion made by at-large member Ilyrong Moon was approved 11-0 with Wilson absent, the school board amended the FLECAC report to put back in language including members of clergy as trusted adults, along with health care providers.
However, the use of the term “sex assigned at birth” instead of “biological gender” attracted the most heated debate both before and during the school board’s June 14 meeting.
The American Psychological Association defines sex as a person’s biological status as indicated by factors such as sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia. By contrast, gender refers to the cultural, psychological, and behavioral aspects of being male, female, or an “alternative gender.”
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity does not match the sex listed on their birth certificate.
The term sex assigned at birth reflects the disconnect that transgender individuals can feel between their actual identity and how they were initially categorized based on bodily attributes like genitalia or chromosomes, according to GLAAD, which combats LGBTQ discrimination in media.
“A person’s sex is determined by a number of factors – not simply genetics – and a person’s biology does not ‘trump’ a person’s gender identity,” GLAAD says.
This terminology has become increasingly common in the medical community. In a May 10 presentation to the school board, FLECAC said using the term “sex assigned at birth” would align FCPS with the APA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Physicians.
“I believe it’s our school system’s job to teach and prepare, and we want all of our students to be treated with dignity and respect, and to make them feel included,” Lee District Representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax said after voting to approve the FLECAC report. “While we teach our students when they are in their teens, we are educating them for a lifetime, and that’s why I appreciate the changes.”
Schultz, who says that she wanted to be present for the vote on the FLECAC report but briefly left the table to use the restroom, criticized her fellow board members for approving the FLE curriculum changes despite vocal opposition from some community members.
The Springfield District representative had proposed a motion to postpone the vote until Oct. 11, but her motion failed by a 2-10 vote.
Schultz argued that the board needed more time to consider the community input that had been provided and that the FLECAC committee members should have engaged the public before issuing their recommendations.
“They reverse-engineered it so that the recommendations were made first and already forwarded to the board before any public input was sought,” Schultz said. “That’s not authentic public engagement. That’s not how you build effective policy.”
FCPS K-12 health, family life, and physical education coordinator Elizabeth Payne, who chairs FLECAC, says the committee has 33 members, including students, teachers, administrators, health professionals, clergy, and other community members.
The committee held six meetings and reviewed the school system’s FLE lesson objectives in comparison to the lesson objectives recommended by the Virginia Department of Education. Members then voted on each proposed recommendation with those receiving a majority vote being forwarded to the school board for consideration.
According to the 2017-2018 FLECAC Report of Recommendations, the recommendation regarding the adoption of the term “sex assigned at birth” was approved by an 18-4 vote with 24 out of 33 committee members present.
“After being introduced as a new business item, a thirty day review period for public comment on new recommendations is held before the final school board vote,” Payne said. “Public comments are shared with school board members for their consideration.”
Meg Kilgannon, executive director of the coalition Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County, said that she was disappointed but not surprised “that the school board would once again disregard the overwhelming input of the public.”
“The term sex assigned at birth is an incredibly politically charged term,” Kilgannon said. “…Your sex is your sex, and it’s determined by your DNA, so to suggest that there’s some other force at work in determining your biological sex, that’s not educating children. That’s indoctrinating them.”
According to the World Health Organization, humans are born with 46 chromosomes, and the presence of an X or Y in the 46th chromosome is often used to categorize infants as male or female when they are born.
However, research has complicated that clear-cut view of determining sex, since individuals can be born with a single-sex chromosome or three or more sex chromosomes. Some men are also born with XX chromosomes, and some women have XY chromosomes due to mutations.
“Clearly, there are not only females who are XX and males who are XY, but rather, there is a range of chromosome complements, hormone balances, and phenotypic variations that determine sex,” the WHO genomic resource centre says.
The parent of four children, two of whom still attend FCPS and two graduates, Kilgannon and her husband opt their children out of family life education lessons, because they want their children to learn about sexuality and other related subjects from them.
“We wanted our children to value our worldview and our religious perspective, the teachings of our church and faith around this issue and did not want them to take cues from the culture at large,” said Kilgannon, a parishioner of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly.
FCPS gives all parents the option of opting their children out of FLE in keeping with the state department of education’s guidelines, but Kilgannon believes that a better approach would be for parents to opt into FLE.
“Just because I send my children through the schoolhouse door does not mean I have consented to this material,” Kilgannon said.
An amendment proposed by Wilson that would direct the FCPS superintendent to secure written permission for FLE instruction from all parents failed 2-10 with Schultz joining the Sully District representative in supporting it.
Ali Munshi has worked in FCPS as a long-term substitute for three years. She also has a transgender daughter who currently attends an elementary school in the district.
Munshi supports the FLECAC recommendations both as an educator and as a parent, and she opposes an opt-in approach to FLE.
“Opting in means that those parents who believe being transgender is some sort of mental illness, they’re not going to opt their kids in, so what they’re teaching their kids unfortunately may be not in line with how the kid feels inside, which breaks my heart,” Munshi said. “…Our daughter’s had an absolutely wonderful experience, and she’s healthy and happy, but I know that not all kids like her are supported at home.”
Munshi says that the increased visibility of transgender students and the issues they face in school has been both positive and negative, since it attracts both support and controversy.
While the June 14 school board meeting was not the first time she shared her daughter’s story in public, she still feels some ambivalence about doing so, expressing concern about the attention it brings to her family.
“She’s so amazing in different ways, so her being transgender is not the biggest thing in our house or in her life,” Munshi said of her daughter. “I am hopeful that along with the medical profession, we’re moving so rapidly forward in such a positive way, understanding gender and its complexities. That is really exciting to me.”