In a standing-room only Orange County School Board meeting on Oct. 3, the controversial “Sexually Explicit Materials Resolution” met its end when it was voted down 3-2.
The resolution, which was proposed on Apr. 25 of this year, charged the schools with having to inform a student’s parents if they talked about sexual or gender identity, including those who were yet to publicly come out as LGBTQ+. Many parents and students expressed concern, sometimes outrage, that this could effectively force the schools into “outing” students as LGBTQ+ to their parents. As the outrage grew, the story made national headlines and has brought sometimes dozens of public comments at almost every school board meeting since.
District 4’s Chelsea Quintern, the vocal conservative who won her seat in a landslide one year ago, brought the proposal to the school board. The Board had previously passed the Divisive Content Resolution in May, which was also proposed by Quintern. Quintern said that her resolution was in line with what the state bill and the Supreme Court have deemed reasonable and acceptable policy.
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However, the nature of that policy has proved murky. While the online description of Virginia’s State Bill 656 states that “the local school board policies shall be consistent with but may be more comprehensive than the model policies developed by the Department,” the actual text of the bill signed into law does not appear to include text that makes this clear. The text of the bill signed into law is ten lines: short, for a piece of important legislation, and nowhere in them does it suggest that local school boards do anything other than inform parents of middle and elementary school students of “sexually explicit content” and offer an alternative.
Earlier this year, Governor Youngkin and the Virginia Department of Education drew from these 10 lines of text from the Code of Virginia and turned it into the much more comprehensive guideline document titled “Model Policies for the Privacy, Dignity and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia Public Schools,“ which was issued to schools of the Commonwealth. This document, much like the State Bill that spawned it, sparked controversy from the moment it was published. It replaced the 2021 “Model Policies on the Treatment of Transgender Students” that was currently in place, and many people saw it as an attack on the most vulnerable students. It was a concern shared by many in the room on October 3, when Orange County’s School Board were to vote on their interpretation of what the intent of the bill and guidelines to be.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, 36 people took to the podium, which was a fraction of the people in attendance. The younger members of the audience carried signs and donned rainbow attire, and they were hard to miss. Of the 36 public commenters, 21 spoke against the proposal. Those who spoke out against the resolution also included a doctor who was concerned that outing students potentially could create a hostile home environment and lead to harm, which was the opposite of what a school system’s expressed goal is and should be. A mental health professional expressed concern about alienating students who were already vulnerable, as did educators who were worried about losing teachers who didn’t want to be put in the position of outing a LGBTQ+ student to their parents. Additionally, each of the four Orange County Public Schools students who spoke advocated against the proposal, saying they felt like the proposal was a huge invasion of their privacy and their human rights.
The 15 people who spoke out in favor of the resolution all varied in tone, subject and demeanor. Most were measured and intellectual, but a few were noticeably more hostile and even outright accusatory. Some of the more articulate arguments in support of the resolution stated that the voters had placed conservatives on the School Board for a reason, and that the majority of the people in the county have traditional values and beliefs, ostensibly such as Quintern’s, thus supporting her as knowing what her constituents want. Mike Allers, an educator and administrator in Orange County Public Schools for 28 years and who is himself seeking a State Senate seat in the next election, also spoke in favor of the proposal. He argued that the goal of the resolution is transparency, and to bring parents into the discussion with their children about their identity and their sexuality.
Yet of all 15 speakers in favor, only one of them identified as the parent of a child in Orange County Public Schools. That person was a man named Larry Scott, who cited his deeply held religious beliefs as the reason for his support. During his speech, however, he did not mention was his presence on Quintern’s campaign website, where he praises her conviction and says, “It’s an honor to know her and have her as a friend.” In fact, many of the speakers were members of different conservative organizations associated with Quintern. These associations were not disclosed at the time; nor, in fairness, was it a requirement to do so.
After two hours of public comment, the resolution went before the school board. When the board passed the Divisive Content Resolution in May, the vote was 3-2, with Quintern, Michael Jones of District 3 and Melissa Anderson of District 1 all voting in favor of the resolution, with Sherrie Page and Jim Hopkins voting against it. With Quintern and Anderson both being vocal conservatives, and board members Page and Hopkins having voted against the other controversial resolution, many saw it as a matter of which way Jones was going to vote.
Jones, a former law enforcement officer, thanked the community for their conduct in discussing the highly poised issue. He spoke candidly, leaning into his words with his elbows together on the table and his hands lifted to his face. He began his opinion by reflecting on the many times he’d worked cases where children had been abused and people had taken their own lives.
“Not everyone wakes up winning the parent lottery,” Jones said. “If you don’t know what the parent lottery is, well… I won it. My mom was an educator for 38 years. I’ve got three kids in public schools, and I’ve also had the joy of living with an educator in this system. I’ve seen what she goes through every day. I don’t want teacher’s ears sewn to the carpet, where they have no room to navigate.”
Moments later, the bill was voted down 3-2. Despite being a national story for months, it remained a quiet affair that was absent from television and national news. In Quintern’s email, she that the whole ordeal was disappointing, but she was going to continue to fight for what she believes in.
“My intent with the resolution was to charge administration and the School Board with passage of a formal policy to set a standard for each school to follow,” Quintern wrote in an email. “In drafting this resolution, the intent was to focus classroom learning on state standards and requirements, which is more important than ever, after the state report was recently released by the Governor.
“As a board member who was elected during the wave of parental rights, it was very disheartening to know that as a collective, the Orange County School Board decided not to definitively stand up for them,” she said. “The law is clear: a parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child. I vow to continue to fight for these rights during my tenure.”
Quintern also requested that it be made clear that her comments are her own and do not reflect those of the Orange County School Board, who all seemed a bit more casual and relaxed at the School Board meeting the following month. During that meeting, the board fulfilled its duty of handing out a host of awards to teachers, staff and students in a room that finally, after almost 8 months, had a few empty seats in it.