Schools Will Contribute to Suicides Under Current Virginia Transgender Student Guidelines

Virginia Department of Health

by James C. Sherlock

Teen suicide is a major problem in America and Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Health reported in 2021 that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Virginia’s youth.

I have talked around but not about teen suicide in previous articles about transgender adolescents.  

study published by the National Institutes of Heath indicates that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidal tendencies highest among transgender youth.

As directed by law, the Virginia Board of Education published in 2020 Suicide Prevention Guidelines in Virginia Schools (Suicide Prevention Guidelines).  I find it exemplary, and hope every school board has adopted it.

On the other hand, I find it dangerous that the same parental involvement strategies were not adopted in Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools (Model Policies) published in 2021.

The writers of Model Policies had a different agenda and less support from medical professionals than the writers of Suicide Prevention Guidelines. As a result, students certainly will harm themselves and commit suicide at higher rates if schools follow Model Policies than if schools were to adhere to the notification procedures in the Suicide Prevention Guidelines.

The fact that this was not the intention of the writers of Model Policies is not relevant. They were wrong. There is nothing in Virginia law that directed these particular policies.

What the schools see is gender confusion. Gender dysphoria is a clinical diagnosis, not a school determination. So is a diagnosis of suicidal tendencies. Schools don’t have anyone qualified to make those diagnoses.

Child neglect and abuse determinations are the job of Social Services, not the schools.

The same Board of Education somehow endorsed both Suicide Prevention Guidelines and Model Policies. They failed the schools, parents and students with Model Policies.

Some of the findings of the Virginia Department of Health report:

  • Self-harm emergency department (ED) visits and nonfatal self-harm hospitalizations are increasing. There is not a comparable increase in suicides among youth 9-18 years in Virginia.
  • The majority of self-harm ED visits (68%) and nonfatal self-harm hospitalizations (74%) among Virginia youth were female. However, the majority of deaths (71%) by suicide were male.
  • More than nine out of 10 nonfatal self-harm hospitalizations among youth were due to drug poisonings, compared to 7% of all youth suicides. Guns were the most common cause [sic] of youth suicide (51%). [Author’s note: surprising and important error: guns were not the cause of the suicides, guns were the method.]
  • While the highest self-harm ED visit rate occurred in the Northwest region, the highest rate of self-harm hospitalizations and deaths by suicide occurred in the Central region
  • Young Virginians were hospitalized for self-harm-related injuries for 1,588 days with over $13 million dollars in hospitalization costs in 2020.

Of particular interest to me is the Suicide Prevention Guidelines section on ASSURING STUDENT SAFETY AND PARENT/GUARDIAN CONTACT.

The parent/guardian should be contacted and interviewed the day the student interview is conducted. Parent/guardian contact should be made regardless of the outcome of the suicide risk assessment.

However, the parent/guardian should not be notified if the student has indicated that the reason for being at risk of suicide relates to parental abuse or neglect.

Instead, the local department of social services should be notified (Code of Virginia § 22.1-272.1).”

That sounds exactly right for both suicide prevention and the transgender stress that often leads to suicides.

Yet from Model Policies: 

For many transgender students, their daily emotional and psychosocial wellness are dependent on receiving support and recognition for their gender identity.

School divisions will need to consider the health and safety of the student in situations where students may not want their parents to know about their gender identity, and schools should address this on a case-by-case basis.

If a student is not ready or able to safely share with their family about their gender identity, this should be respected. There are no regulations requiring school staff to notify a parent or guardian of a student’s request to affirm their gender identity, and school staff should work with students to help them share the information with their family when they are ready to do so.

“Safely share” it says. But don’t notify parents or Social Services. “Work with the students.”

Model Policies then jumped from what the authors wanted to happen to what Virginia law requires. No middle step.

To comply with § 63.2-1509 of the Code of Virginia, whenever school personnel suspects or becomes aware that a student is being abused, neglected, or at risk of abuse or neglect (as defined by § 63.2-100 of the Code of Virginia) by their parent due to their transgender identity, they must report those concerns to Child Protective Services immediately.

So Model Policies guides in a way that the schools must thread two needles: Model Policies and the law. There is a wide gap between not notifying parents at the student’s request and suspecting abuse or neglect and calling Child Protective Services (CPS).

How, exactly, is a teacher or other school staffer supposed to bridge that knowledge gap professionally? They can ask the kid, but that adds to the pressure on the child, and how do they evaluate the response?

School psychologists are not licensed for clinical practice. School counselors will have to call CPS if the child says he is being abused.

There is a way to engage more professional help if the child says he does not want his parents told without asking the child if he is being abused.

Call the local Department of Social Services, one of whose many assets is CPS. Let them handle the case and engage CPS if they think it necessary.

What are the sure consequences of Model Policies? Let us assess this situation:

  • Transgender identity crisis is one of the leading causes of child and adolescent suicide.
  • Transgender student “emotional and psychosocial wellness are dependent on receiving support and recognition for their gender identity.”
  • Yet schools are told by Model Policies not to notify parents of student gender identity issues until the student is “ready to do so.” So, the schools at that point know that the child is not “out” at home. So, the schools, by not contacting the parents, increase the stress on the child’s emotional and psychosocial awareness by making him live two lives.
  • But if the gender-confused student, driven certainly in part by the two lives he or she is living and concerns his or her parents may find out because the school has not notified them, demonstrates suicide ideation, then under Suicide Prevention Guidelines, either the parents or the local Department of Social Services will be notified at that point. Social Services will contact the parents one way or the other, engaging Child Protective Services if necessary. One hopes the student has demonstrated suicide ideation at school before the suicide attempt, or the school, the student and the parents will have all been devastated by Model Guidelines.
  • If the transgender student commits suicide at school, the parents and police will be notified.  No need for Social Services.

So perhaps someone will be able to explain to grieving parents why the first time the school, which under Model Policies did not contact them about their child’s gender confusion, finally lets them know when the child is dead.

Change the Model Guidelines. Take schools off the hook and make the school choices binary upon discovery of gender confusion by a student.

  • Either notify the parents; or,
  • if the child does not want that, then notify the Department of Social Services, one of whose many assets is Child Protective Services, and whose job it is to make the determination of the right thing to do. They will notify the parents one way or another.

Those two choices are what Suicide Prevention Guidelines suggests.

Schools must not sit and hope that gender confusion pressures of which they become aware resolve themselves without suicide. Model Policies should not put them in that position.

I expect schools, especially their guidance counselors in whose laps these cases will wind up, to do what they think is best and get it right most of the time.

But ask a trial lawyer.

Virginia schools currently can be sued if they follow Model Policies because they failed to follow Suicide Prevention Guidelines.  Fix it.

Updated at 1:12 PM on August 20.