Debates in elections for the Falls Church School Board seldom rise above commentaries on academic and related relatively esoteric school-related issues, but Thursday night’s forum at the American Legion Hall was an exception. Even though questions to the four candidates seeking three seats in the Nov. 5 City election were drawn randomly from a hat, two of them related to gender identity and LGBTQ issues wound up steering the dominant themes of the debate in just that direction. Incumbent Phil Reitinger and first-time candidates Laura Downs, Sue Dimock and Douglass Stevens were the candidates involved.
It started when a question was drawn and directed to Stevens about protections for students with gender identity issues. Stevens said that while it is important to support every student, period, we must also protect other students with different views based on their consciences and fair thought. There are to be protection of students’ “right to conscience,” he said. “It is not a simple solution and we need to avoid division in the community.”
Dimock responded to another question related to the same subject, saying she supports an Arlington School Board statement protecting the interests of transgender students. “We need to value them and meet them where they are,” she said. “I’d be happy to support a statement like Arlington’s.”
Reitinger followed noting that the School Board has always added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to all of its anti-discrimination policies, even though the Commonwealth of Virginia does not yet recognize them. “There has not been a person on the School Board who has objected,” he said. “We support inclusivity, without moderation, as a system. It is not a moral decision to be made by others. We accept all students who are seeking to learn.”
Later, Downs said she felt it was important to pick up on that discussion to support the policy of inclusion, saying she’s worked with a lot of LGBTQ students in her job at George Washington University “who’ve experienced a lot of pain” coming to grips with their identity. “The world is changing,” she said, “and full of differences. There must be no bullying, we must treat people as human beings, and it is an important lesson to learn for all students.” She cited the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms in the new George Mason High School now under construction as an example of putting these values “into action.”
Stevens, as the last to speak for the evening, then took his closing statement to reiterate his view that “while every students must be cared for,” he opposes the School Board “weighing in on personal issues and pushing one way or the other.” It is not its role, he said, “To vilify or glorify,” and cited his objection to a recent schools-backed assembly where an author spoke about transgender issues and cited the existence of a “gender spectrum,” asking, “Why should the schools weigh in on issues like this?”
The event was co-sponsored by the Citizens for a Better City, the F.C. League of Women Voters, the Village Preservation Society, the City’s Republican and Democratic Committees and the host American Legion Post 130. Former F.C. Vice Mayor and School Board member Hal Lippman moderated the event, which was introduced by Harry Shovlin.