Virginia students stage school walkout over transgender policies

Posted at 8:37 PM, Mar 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-19 20:37:29-04

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Dozens of students and their parents joined a protest outside Atlee High School in Hanover County on Friday in hopes of sending a message to the Hanover County School Board. Atlee students told CBS 6 they organized a walkout to happen at 2:10 p.m. Friday at the Atlee Station Road campus.

Halie Ashenburg held a rainbow flag and a sign that read, “Every Kid Includes Trans Kids.”

“I’m an ally myself. My best friend is transgender, and I support them no matter what. I want them to live happy and safe,” Ashenburg, an Atlee senior, said. “It’s not about any religious thing. It’s about loving your fellow neighbor.”

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Hanover students walked out of Atlee High School on Friday, March 18, in protest over school policies as they pertain to transgender students.

The protest was, in part, over the Hanover School Board's decision to allow the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to review the county's equal education policy.

Supporters call the ADF an organization that protects religious freedom, free speech, marriage, and family. Some protesters labeled the group as anti-gay. The Southern Poverty Law Center has gone as far as to call it a hate group.

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Hanover School's equal education policy goes against a 2020 Virginia law that provides protections to students who want to use the restroom and locker rooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify.

Kelly Merrill joined the walkout with her child.

“[The board thinks] it’s okay to not honor trans kids' rights and break the law in doing so,” Merrill said. “One of our issues in the last few months has been getting the Hanover County School Board to hear us and acknowledge that we exist in the numbers that we do.”

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One Atlee High student, who stood beside the protesters with an American flag in opposition to the walkout, said he supported the current school policies that were under protest.

Other students later joined with both American flags and flags that support former president Donald Trump.

Kimberly Thurston, another Hanover mom who spoke with CBS 6 on March 16, expressed her support for the board's decision.

“[The ADF does] amazing work defending our First Amendment rights. I was pleased to see them brought in at no cost to taxpayers,” Thurston said.

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Many of the protesting parents have also joined a lawsuit with the ACLU of Virginia which is suing the school board over the policy.

A Hanover Schools spokesperson referred any questions to the chair of the Hanover County School Board Ola Hawkins.

Hawkins has not yet replied.

Atlee High School principal sent a message to parents on Friday which read:

Earlier today, a small group of students exited our school building and held a non-threatening demonstration outside our school. In accordance with our established protocols, our immediate focus was to ensure the safety of all students. During the course of the demonstration, instruction for students who did not participate proceeded as normal and without disruption. At no time were students or staff in the building in danger.

We would like to express our appreciation to the vast majority of our students who chose not to engage in this unapproved activity. School safety is of paramount importance and leaving our school building during the instructional day is simply not safe. As I shared yesterday, students are expected to follow all behavior and attendance requirements (as outlined in the Code of Student Conduct []) by reporting to and staying in their designated, supervised areas during instructional time. Students are not permitted outside of the school unsupervised as a matter of safety. Students who do not follow these expectations will be held accountable for their actions in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct.

Again, we are committed to helping our students learn about civic engagement and stand ready to help them navigate important, complex, and difficult issues by finding opportunities to give voice to their feelings and perspectives without compromising safety and interrupting our instructional focus. Please reach out to me or any administrator with ideas that will strengthen our community in positive ways.

We sincerely appreciate your support of our efforts to maintain a safe, healthy, and enriching learning environment.

Have a good evening.

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