Stickers on classroom door at Rockbridge County High School
Patrick Bradley’s classroom door at Rockbridge County High School advertises a safe space for LGBTQ+ and Black students – a trend throughout the building thanks to SAGA and STAND. (Photo by Patrick Bradley).

By Brianna Hatch

Rockbridge County Public School students are now required to have a signed parental permission slip in order to participate in any clubs, according to a new policy unanimously approved by the Rockbridge County School Board.

Supporters of the policy believe that parents have the right to monitor their child’s involvement in extracurricular activities. Others see this change as a targeted attack against LGBTQ+ students and two specific clubs at Rockbridge County High School (RCHS): Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) and Students and Teachers For Non-Discrimination (STAND).

Patrick Bradley, the teacher sponsor for SAGA and STAND, believes the policy will prevent at least a third of the students who want to be in SAGA from joining.

“Kids who don’t have supportive parents would not be allowed to be part of the club,” he said.

And those students are the ones who need supportive clubs the most, said Arden Courtney Collins, 17, a senior at RCHS, member of SAGA and the co-president and co-founder of STAND.

Transparency vs. discrimination

“Having that opportunity for community, to find other people who are like you, and to find people who can relate and are supportive of your identity — it’s really important,” she said.

But supporters of the policy say that this would be an unintentional consequence of the permission slip requirement. The real purpose is to keep parents informed and increase transparency.

“I certainly understand that there are cases where students have home environments that are not supportive of their lifestyle or their religious views, but I think those are case-by-case issues,” said Morgan McCown, a former RCHS teacher and candidate for Rockbridge County School Board. “Ultimately, parents are raising the kids. So they do deserve to be in the loop.”

Brandy Mitchell sees the parental permission slip as an essential first step towards unifying parents and schools.

“We’re such a complex society that no longer do educators and parents have the opportunity to collaborate and make the best practice for our children,” said Mitchell, a mother of four. “I think involving the original stakeholder, being the parent, is a good start.”

Wendy Lovell, chair of the Rockbridge County School Board, said that the policy was written for all clubs, not just SAGA, with the goal of protecting, not targeting.

“And there are three stakeholders that the policy is intended to support and protect and that’s students, the faculty advisors, and the parents,” she said. “I recognize that not every parent is going to be accepting of a student’s choice or where they are with their sexuality, but it’s my hope that a student might need to have a conversation with a parent that may lead to a more positive outcome.”

Rockbridge follows other school districts nationwide

Rockbridge County is not the first public school district to implement the parental permission slip club policy. In the past decade, others across the nation have adopted similar requirements. Usually, this policy change correlates with controversy surrounding clubs for LGBTQ+ students.

In Franklin County, Tenn., the permission slip requirement was put in place after three months of debate surrounding the formation of a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club. In Lake County, Fla., the school board approved parental permission slips after losing a fight to ban the GSA club from their middle school.

For Rockbridge County, the new club policy surfaced in school board meetings in June 2021 — the same month that the Virginia Department of Education announced that all public school districts were required to have inclusive policies for the treatment of transgender students and updated non-discrimination policies by this fall.

The Rockbridge County School Board had no choice but to adopt these policies this month, Bradley said, but they have been facing intense criticism since — especially from parents, led by McCown, at board meetings.

“It’s likely the school board and the administration feel very much on the defensive and they want to be able to say ‘we’re not pushing any sort of agenda’ and ‘we’re not indoctrinating students,’ so they came up with policy under the guise of saying parents have a right to know what their kids are doing,” Bradley said. “Basically what they’re saying is we want to give parents a chance to forbid their kids from being in SAGA.”

Courtney Collins also said that the timing feels targeted towards STAND, which she and her two friends founded in the spring of 2021 to fight discriminatory issues they were seeing in the high school.

And while the policy aims to give voice and rights to parents, some students and teachers feel like their input was largely ignored.

Liam Courtney Collins, 14, brother of Arden and a freshman at RCHS, said students were told nothing about the policy before it was passed.

“[The school board] is not listening to the students, but to the parents who are just being aggressive and speaking louder,” he said.

Bradley said that teachers were only consulted after the policy had been proposed, one week before the September board meeting where voting was taking place.

Curriculum vs non-curriculum groups

The new policy divides clubs into two groups: curriculum-related (CR), which serve as direct extensions to school courses, and non-curriculum-related (NCR), which are not school sponsored or endorsed.

The purpose of this distinction is to make the club system more organized and up-to-date, Mike Craft, principal of RCHS, said.

“It’s really about cleaning up our record-keeping policy, showing which students are involved, which sponsor we have involved and how active our clubs are.”

NCR clubs must apply every year 20 days prior to their first meeting, and they can not host events during school hours. The role of their teacher sponsors has also been reduced.

Meetings for NCR clubs can not occur without sponsors present, and while they are allowed to participate in activities with students, they can not be “leading, guiding, or directing in nature,” the school board clarified.

Lovell said this is meant to give students the opportunity for leadership. But Bradley believes that the reduction in sponsor power could “shut down some clubs” that rely on teachers doing a lot of the work.

Arden also believes that the reduction is just another way for the school board to prove they are not endorsing NCR clubs. If the sponsors can’t teach or guide, no one can be accused of indoctrinating students.

“It gives them an out and deflects a little bit of criticism, which I do have sympathy for,” she said. “But we’re supposed to be learning from teachers, and they’re supposed to be guiding us.”

Both SAGA and STAND are officially designated by the school board as NCR. But Arden believes that SAGA is related to school learning.

“It’s related to sex-ed, it’s related to a lot of history curriculum, sociology, psychology,” she said. “So that line to me is a little bit blurry, which is something that contributes to the feeling, whether or not it’s intentional, that the policy is somewhat targeted.”

In light of all these changes, Bradley thinks the school board needs to act if they want to prove that they really do care about their LGBTQ students. Mandatory education and training sessions for both faculty and students is the first step, Bradley said. Reforming the family life curriculum in health classes is the next.

“The family life curriculum is sexist, heteronormative — it’s problematic in lots of ways,” he said.

Arden thinks the administration needs to “step it up” in general when it comes to taking an active role in making RCHS a safer environment for all students.

“Overall, RCHS is not a good environment to be in if you are a minority, whatever kind of minority that might be, if you’re an LGBTQ+ person or if you’re in a racial minority,” she said. “I’d love to hear what the school’s plan is for making that situation better.”

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