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Why a request for West Chester district data on LGBTQ students spurs privacy worry

Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said there are “very important privacy protections” for students.

  • Kenny Cooper/WHYY
Resident Jenifer MacFarland (pictured far left at the podium) makes a public comment — and hand delivers a Right to Know Law request to the West Chester Area School District seeking information on LGBTQ students.

Resident Jenifer MacFarland (pictured far left at the podium) makes a public comment — and hand delivers a Right to Know Law request to the West Chester Area School District seeking information on LGBTQ students.

Over the last month, worries about students’ privacy have sprung from one person’s request for information on LGBTQ children in the West Chester Area School District.

The Right to Know Law request, filed by a district resident, stemmed from her objection to availability of the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in high school libraries. The request asked for data on the percentage of LGBTQ students in the district, the number of referrals to guidance counselors regarding those students, and how many times the book had been checked out.

Though the request was largely denied with the exception of the book data, the demand for the sensitive information has raised serious concerns about infringement of the privacy of LGTBTQ students and their families. A separate school board decision about whether “Gender Queer: A Memoir” should be removed from the libraries was expected Monday night.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said there are “very important privacy protections” for students.

“For instance, there is federal law that prohibits the disclosure of student records. They can be disclosed to the individual student and his or her family, but that they can’t be disclosed beyond that. And even under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law, there are a number of exemptions that recognize the importance of keeping personal private information confidential, whether that’s around public employees or civilians or government contractors, there are a number of exemptions, which would restrict the ability of the school district to release any kind of student-specific information,” Walczak said.

West Chester Superintendent Bob Sokolowski told WHYY News that he wanted to assure community members that the school district does not keep track of the number of LGBTQ students — part of the reason the Right to Know request was mostly denied — and that he is committed to making sure the district is welcoming to all.

In all his years in education, Sokolowski said, he had never received a request quite like the one submitted last month. He thinks it would be invasive to even collect the data.

“As a former high school principal, I’ve actually had students who have struggled with their identity. And I’ve had students who have actually sought me out in the past where — ‘Dr. Sokolowski, you’re somebody who’s been helping me and mentoring me, I’m pretty sure I’m gay.’ And I’ve had kids come out to me before. I’ve also worked with students who have been in transition, and working closely with their families,” Sokolowski said.

The students targeted in the request are not simply abstract numbers to be called on willingly, he said — they are very real, and their issues are “personal” to both him and the school.

Sokolowski said he takes pride in West Chester’s diversity.

“Making sure … that your students know that it’s inclusive and it’s a supportive community is highly important,” Sokolowski said, adding that  he wants kids to be able to see themselves in the media they consume.

“It’s important for students to not only have people that they could identify with in their school, but in something that may be so private and so delicate as sexual orientation, that maybe reading a book can provide them that support and may then lead them to have a better understanding of where they are in their lives,” Sokolowski said.

Walczak said ACLU-PA’s stance is that schools are a place of not only learning about what you know, but also learning about the experiences of people different from you. From his perspective, any district assessing which books belong in libraries using “arbitrary percentages of students” identifying as a vulnerable group is “completely missing the point of education.”

“Those books are not just for LGBTQ students, they are for everybody, and everybody can learn from them. And if the school district were to start making decisions about removing books based on that kind of criteria, they could expect a lawsuit from the ACLU,” Walczak said.

WHYY News was unable to find contact information for Jenifer MacFarland, the resident who made the Right to Know request, to seek a comment from her. An October 2021 Facebook post from the West Whiteland Republicans identified MacFarland as guest speaker for an event condemning critical race theory. It was unclear whether she will continue to pursue the information denied in her Right to Know request.

The West Chester Area School District serves West Chester Borough, West Goshen Township, East Goshen Township, Westtown Township, East Bradford Township, West Whiteland Township, and Thornbury Township. In total, the school system serves roughly 12,000 students.

Parents and community members told WHYY that they were dumbfounded by MacFarland’s request, but ultimately not surprised by the spectacle surrounding it.

Nancy Wood is a parent of four children in the district. She was there Feb. 28, the night of MacFarland’s request.

“As a parent, I was very alarmed. I think most people in the audience were alarmed. There was an audible gasp when she made that request. But I think, reflecting back on it, even beyond the shock value of her asking for that information, if you think about the premise of her question, it really kind of gives insight into the mindset of some of these groups that are working to undermine public education in our communities,” Wood said.

She thinks what’s behind the request represents an “archaic” attitude — which, she added, isn’t how education is supposed to work.

“Because in order to develop critical thinking, our students need to be exposed to a variety of perspectives. They need to be exposed to diversity, that’s part of learning, and that’s part of education,” Wood said.

Wood has been seeing a troubling trend in recent years in the West Chester Area School District. She said that she has witnessed a culture of “nonsense” conspiracy theories fuel attacks on parents, teachers, and vulnerable students.

The tool being used the most is fear, she said. And while she supports the district, Wood believes that it has been slow to adapt to the increasingly complex attacks from a certain subset of parents.

“They want parents to be afraid that their kids are being exposed to pornography or being groomed, they want parents to be afraid that their kids are being transformed into Marxists or indoctrinated, or that they’re going to be seen for being white. And none of that is true. But I do want our district to recognize that this isn’t going away, and that they need a strategy to combat it, because it is taking away time and resources that we as families and as a community need our district to really be focused on,” Wood said.

 

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