Gender Identity, LGBTQ Issues Key School Board Candidates Debate

With less than a month to go before the Nov. 5 City of Falls Church municipal election of City Council and School Board candidates, it is heating up with forums, debates, yard signs, animated dinner conversations and door knocking all over the Little City. It began with an unusual forum of School Board candidates last week when gender identity and sexual orientation issues dominated to the surprise of many.

For the Council, incumbents David Tarter, the current mayor, Phil Duncan and Letty Hardi are seeking re-election along with challenger Stuart Whitaker. For the School Board, incumbent Phil Reitinger and challengers Laura Downs, Sue Dimock and Douglass Stevens are vying.

Next Tuesday at noon, four candidates seeking three seats on the City Council will make their case to members of the monthly Falls Church Chamber of Commerce luncheon. That day also is the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 5 election.

That will be followed next Thursday, Oct. 17, by an evening of debate among the four Council and four School Board candidates hosted by the F.C. League of Women Voters at the George Mason High School auditorium, beginning at 7 p.m. The School Board candidates will go first, followed by the Council candidates.

Then on Thursday, Oct. 24, the CBC, American Legion, Democratic and Republican committees and Chamber of Commerce will host a debate of the Council candidates back at the Legion Hall, 400 N. Oak, at 7 p.m.

As for last week’s kickoff School Board debate, it was not the norm. Debates in elections for the F.C. School Board seldom rise above commentaries on academic and related relatively esoteric school-related issues, but last Thursday’s forum at the American Legion Hall was an exception.
Even though questions to the four candidates seeking three seats in the November 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.

It started when a question was drawn 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 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?”

Dimock was the first of three of the candidates (Reitinger and Downs included) who addressed the issue of how anxiety and lack of confidence are impacting students, and said the goal should be to make sure students are academically and emotionally prepared. She said it should include a focus on being inclusive and caring.

Reitinger, the lone incumbent seeking re-election, noted that the Falls Church schools “are in a far different place than four years ago, when disputes over technology, transparency, difficulties proceeding with the Mt. Daniel expansion and the future of a new high school were all contentious.”

“We have made great progress for all our students,” he said. The new high school is on target to be finished on time and under budget, and issues of the performance of disadvantaged and non-English language speaking students have been identified and addressed, as well as taking on bullying and enhancing an “IB-for-all approach” to the fact the system is now International Baccalaureate-based from kindergarten through 12th grade. He said it is important to note that for the first time in a very long time, there are no students being taught in temporary trailers.

Downs, a former Elementary PTA president and on the board of the Falls Church Education Foundation, touted the system’s continued small class sizes and the work of Superintendent Peter Noonan.

Stevens, a former Naval officer and resident of the City for four and a half years, said he’s excited by the prospect of “injecting myself into this incredible community,” due to “the value it places on principles and open mindedness.”

The candidates all showed up at the monthly breakfast of the Falls Church City Democratic Committee last Saturday, and reiterated the same positions, including singling out again the gender identity and sexual orientation issues.