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Gov. Northam’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, Rips Gov. Youngkin For Talking About Forcing Schools to “Out” LGBTQ Students, Arguing It “would open up a whole can of worms…it’s a *safety* issue!”

Qarni: "the Youngkin types...need to get their heads out of the gutter, it's really really twisted"

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I had a chance to chat earlier this afternoon with Gov. Ralph Northam’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni. The two main topics we discussed were:

See below for a lightly edited/condensed transcript, with bolding added for emphasis.

Blue Virginia: “Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is a teacher, tweeted in response to the article which reported Youngkin wanting schools to inform parents if a student talks about their sexuality, etc: ‘I’m a teacher. I would never out a kid. Ever. My job is to help them thrive.’” So what is Youngkin saying? That schools should betray the confidence that kids place in their teachers, counselors, etc?

Atif Qarni: “First, a short comment on the Hanover [swastika] logo controversy, I think that’s ridiculous. It’s surprising that it went through so many people, and not a single person flagged it. It’s really problematic. I really think they should change it up…When I saw it a, I immediately reacted, this is a problem.  Generally something like this, multiple  people see it…it’s a shame. The right thing for them to do is to just change it…come up with a new logo and move on.”

Blue Virginia: “The broader thing with Hanover is they just keep getting into these controversies, because they have a very right-wing School Board. Just last night, they had a School Board meeting where public comment was pretty crazy. Because they have a proposed policy where, just for a trans kid to go to the bathroom, they have to do a criminal background check on them and…the kids have to jump through all these hoops in order to qualify to use the bathroom.”

Atif Qarni: “Even before the state put up model policies…students were being accommodated...It’s easy for schools to accommodate, whether teachers bathrooms or for administrators…It’s really not that challenging to do, so they’re just unnecessarily creating drama.”

Atif Qarni: “As for Gov. Youngkin’s [comments about] outing children to their parents, without the children’s consent…This is why professional development is really important, not only as it relates to LGBTQ+ students or – keep in mind, we also have teachers and educators and staff who are LGBTQ+ – the policies we put in place were inclusive of everyone, adults and children, and then it gave a roadmap of what professional development and training took place for everyone…When I was a teacher, almost every year there was a student who was part of the queer community…came to me, because I had a good rapport with that child, and expressed their anxiety that because they were gay…they were afraid to tell their family about it because they were afraid their families would not accept it…The counselor gave really good advice…if you notice that a child is going to harm themselves or somebody else might harm them, it’s the legal obligation for an adult working in that building to record that. However, when a child [comes to speak to a teacher, they can suggest] if they’re comfortable [speaking] to the school counselor…it remains in confidence unless you give the consent to share it…That’s the standard practice. And that’s why, when Republicans like Gov. Youngkin are against equity, against social-emotional learning, against professional development, this is the very issue that good professional development is supposed to address…gives the tools to adults working in the school system to figure out how do we navigate this…It’s actually beneficial for parents too….Generally, I want to know what my children are going through, and I want to create an environment where they feel they can come and talk to me…I think some parents have that open relationship where their kids can confide in them, and generally those parents tend to be supportive if a child is part of the LGBQT+ community. And some parents don’t have that. Generally, the students who might be coming to an adult in the building…and talking in confidence, it’s probably because the HOME atmosphere is not  open and welcoming. That’s why this is a protection issue, it’s a safety issue for that child. They might not have been threatened by a family member, but they might feel like they could be. So…protecting that conversation so [the kids] don’t get harmed, or they don’t get ostracized or bullied at home or harassed, or something bad might happen to them. So it’s really about the students’ safety.”

Blue Virginia: “So is it fair to say that what Youngkin’s proposing might interfere with the trusting relationship between school personnel and the students, and also potentially put LGBTQ students in jeopardy? Is that what we’re talking about if what Younkin’s talking about were to go throw?”

Atif Qarni: “In Youngkin’s proposal, if a child indeed believes they’re gay or they want to transition, that conversation, if somebody is notified in the school about it that a parent should be notified right away, they’re going about it wrong…I think if you look at the research, many children probably feel more comfortable having those conversations with their family members first. But once in a while, because they might have a suffocating environment at home, they’re coming for support and help in the school, if they maybe trust an adult in the school division more. So it becomes a safety issue. So this approach that Youngkin is taking opens up a can of worms, not just for LGBTQ students but for students in general. It can be really problematic, because schools generally are a place where children spend most of their time and also where abuse gets reported. For example, during the COVID pandemic, when in-person wasn’t happening and we were virtual, we saw a significant reduction in the reporting of abuse…students couldn’t have these conversations in confidence with their school counselors and educators…So I think this [proposed Youngkin policy] would open up a whole can of worms, and it’s a safety issue.”

Blue Virginia: “What’s the problem, if there IS a problem, that Youngkin’s trying to address here? Have there been problems/issues with students talking to teachers and then the parents didn’t know and something bad happened? What’s motivating this push to have the schools tell their parents personal information that the students don’t necessarily want to share with their parents for a variety of reasons?”

Atif Qarni: “I have a very different mindset [than]… Youngkin and the families who supported him… I think that mindset is, ‘I want to control my children and I’m worried that other people are influencing them’. It’s this fundamental belief and denial that if somebody is born they don’t necessarily have to be straight, they can be gay, they might feel that they were born into a male body but might want to transition because they see themselves as a female.  I think there’s a fundamental divide by a group of Americans, like the Youngkins of the world…[who] believe that the external world and our school education system is out to get them and their children, indoctrinate them…pass on [information that] families are different; there’s an attack on anything that talks about inclusivity and that people are different. And that includes the queer community…the different racial and ethnic groups…it’s a kind of ongoing onslaught of backwards thinking, not being understanding of different people…cookie-cutter, traditional thinking, that everybody should be a white straight male or a white straight female, a nobody else matters mentality.”

Blue Virginia: “But is there anything specific that triggered this? Or is this just a basic difference in philosophy, world view, psychological makeup or whatever?”

Atif Qarni: “In the last few years under Gov. Northam’s leadership, we made strides on a lot of fronts including education. So what triggered this is that…our educators and policymakers and local school divisions who wanted to create a more inclusive environment actually passed policies so curriculum was more inclusive, that talks about the LGBTQ community, that talks about the history, and…to make our facilities more inclusive. So that’s what triggered it, this is the whole battle…

Blue Virginia: “It’s a backlash?”

Atif Qarni: “It’s a backlash. It’s a backlash. That’s why they’re up in arms, because we’re actually bringing about change – in my mind,  it’s much-needed change that’s been needed for generations, that we’re finally trying to address, to make it a better, inclusive, welcoming culture for our children. So this is the backlash.”

Blue Virginia: “So they see all this change as threatening, such as transgender kids being able to use the bathroom, even though all the evidence shows that transgender kids don’t threaten anybody – quite the contrary.”

Atif Qarni: “According to evidence and research, students who might be LGBTQ+, who might be transgender students, are exponentially more likely to experience bullying from other children…I’ve seen that first hand, anecdotally speaking…I taught 8th grade…kids  [at that age] are really really mean, you remember in 8th grade…It’s a variety of factors – whether you’re gay, obese, have pimples, your voice sounds funny…anything. So that’s the thing, it’s safety and protection of children, and that’s why these policies are put in place. But they want to twist this  – they see children – children! –  the Youngkin types…need to get their heads out of the gutter, it’s really really twisted…It creates this false facade that somehow CHILDREN are a threat. It’s really disturbing…You know, to create false narratives that these are trans children who are pederasts; that is not fair, that is not right, it’s really feeding into the fake frenzy’s that’s been created.”

Blue Virginia: “Demonization of LGBTQ kids, it’s very dangerous when you start doing that. So for what Youngkin’s talking about to actually take effect, what would need to happen?”

Atif Qarni: “You’d have to obviously undo the current policy at the state level and then you’d have to convince the local boards to follow that, you’d have to pass a law. It’s not that easy to do, thank god…To specifically mandate that educators out children, you have to pass a state law…A governor can direct the state superintendent, but that’s just a guideline for policy, local divisions don’t have to follow it. In order for every school division to follow it, something substantive has to be done by the General Assembly…to mandate it….Local school division can pass their own mandates. But systemwide, statewide it has to be an actual law.”

Blue Virginia: “So it’s not necessarily an imminent threat that this is going to happen, but if Democrats were to lose the General Assembly in 2023 – hopefully they won’t – then Republicans could pass a law about this?”

Atif Qarni: “That’s true. And what is a problem though, right now, is that because Youngkin’s talking about and is using his bully pulpit…it creates a toxic culture, so that’s a problem; they’re creating this turmoil across the state and local divisions.”

Blue Virginia: “Meanwhile, Youngkin’s stocked his administration with people like Elizabeth Schultz and other very right-wing, anti-LGBTQ people, so that’s disturbing…And the Board of Education, he’s going to have a majority on that soon, and they can change history standards, right?”

Atif Qarni: “They can, yes, they can change the standards.”

Blue Virginia: “So that could be happening soon. In the end, you have to win elections, you really do. I mean, Youngkin acted like he was some sort of moderate, and the media bought it, but he’s clearly not – this is very right wing stuff here.”

Atif Qarni: “Yes, he’s the one who’s in charge of appointing people, so the buck stops with him, right?  It really is him. Yes, there are people influencing his mind, but the buck stops with the governor. He’s the one who sets the tone where the state is going to go. And under his leadership, it’s deteriorating.”

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