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Central Bucks West tells teachers not to use students’ preferred names and pronouns without parent approval

  • Emily Rizzo/WHYY
Lilly Freeman, a Central Bucks County East High School alum, held up a book that helped her transition at a rally ahead of the Central Bucks School District’s vote to remove books perceived to have sexualized content from their libraries on July 26, 2022.

 Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Lilly Freeman, a Central Bucks County East High School alum, held up a book that helped her transition at a rally ahead of the Central Bucks School District’s vote to remove books perceived to have sexualized content from their libraries on July 26, 2022.

Administrators at Central Bucks West High School have introduced a new “Gender Identification Procedure” that many teachers say is discriminatory against LGBTQ students.

Teachers say they were told to not use a student’s preferred name or pronoun if it does not match with the information in the school’s database. They say they were told to inform guidance counselors about any student who requests a different name or pronoun. Guidance counselors would then arrange a conversation with the student’s parents or guardians so they could approve their student’s name and/or pronoun change.

Administrators introduced the procedure at a faculty meeting six days into the school year; teachers said administrators cited protecting parents’ rights as the reason. Four teachers told WHYY News about the meeting and the unprecedented pushback from educators.

“A lot of us are distraught,” said Becky Cartee-Haring, who has taught English at Central Bucks West for 16 years.

“I physically felt sick in that meeting, listening to an administrator basically argue that we were going to protect ourselves by outting children … it’s heart wrenching … It’s just cruel.”

Teachers said administrators told them they have to follow parents’ or guardians’ wishes if they differ from a student’s.

“What the children wanted was completely irrelevant,” said David Klein, who has been teaching social studies at Central Bucks West for 26 years.

Klein said he’s not going to follow the new procedure.

“There’s no way I’m hurting a kid. Hell no. I cannot be complicit in harming children,” Klein said, raising his voice. “And I said this in the meeting … this is the most at-risk marginalized group of students, they need our support more than anyone else. No! Kid says, ‘Call me Tony,’ I’m calling them Tony!”

Klein and other teachers are unwilling to “deadname” a student in front of their peers, parents, or other school staff.

Klein said even if he faces a parent who does not want their child to be called a name that the child prefers, he will continue to prioritize the student.

“My job is to educate your kids, to prepare them for the future, to make them feel safe, period. That’s my calling. Pardon me,” Klein said, choking up. “I’m calling you Tony because you need to feel safe in my classroom. How else are you going to learn? And if they want to fire me, that’s their business.”

Cartee-Haring and education experts said students learn better when teachers show respect for who they are.

“There are very few hills that teachers are going to die on,” Cartee-Haring said. “But in this case, most of the people I talked to said, ‘I’m willing to go in the line of fire, if I have to sit in a meeting with an angry parent, I’m going to do that.’”

The district’s newly hired public relations firm, Devine + Partners, told WHYY News in a written statement that “neither counselors nor teachers are directed to automatically contact parents about requests like this.”

Another separate statement from the spokesperson said, “Our counselors – trained professionals – work with students individually, building relationships based on care and compassion. In addition, we understand that parents are also stakeholders in these matters. We work with students and their parents/guardians on a case-by-case basis in seeking to reach an agreed-upon solution for each student.”

New Central Bucks policy could put district in ‘legal hot water’

Both the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Education Law Center expressed concern over the new procedure, opposing the idea that parents have the right to make these kinds of educational decisions.

“That right does not exist, at least not in the way that these parents are trying to claim it does,” said Vic Walczak, the legal director for ACLU Pa.

Kristina Moon, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, pointed out that federal courts have recognized “a student’s right to privacy in their sexual orientation and gender identity, including with respect to their family members.”

“Persistently and purposely misgendering students … can also be considered harassment that violates both federal anti-discrimination laws and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Walczak added. “It potentially is going to get the school district into legal hot water.”

Moon said the U.S. Office of Civil Rights has also recognized that a school’s policy or practice of refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns violates Title IX and equal protection rights.

The Pennsylvania School Counselors Association advises school counslors to safeguard the well-being of transgender and nonbinary youth, and abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

“Transgender and nonbinary students have a FERPA-protected right to privacy; this extends to students’ gender identity, birth name, sex assigned at birth and medical history,” PSCA leaders wrote in a statement sent to WHYY News.

Education experts say Central Bucks policy will harm students

Patrick Sexton, the executive director of teacher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said procedures like the new guidelines at Central Bucks West can disconnect students from a system of support they deserve.

Research from GLSEN, an education advocacy organization that focuses on LGBTQ youth, shows that transgender students experience success when they have a trusted and caring adult at school. In a 2019 report looking at school climate for LGBTQ students in Pennsylvania, GLSEN reports that 97% of LGBTQ students could identify at least one school staff member supportive of LGBTQ students, but fewer (69%) could identify six or more supportive school staff.

“Policies that rob children of that safe person are only going to increase students not attending school because they do not believe that it’s a safe space, children whose grades will plummet because they’re concerned about their safety,” Sexton said.

“When children are worried about their safety, constantly worried about hiding,” Sexton added, “we will see already terrible stats around LGBTQ children not attending school, of thinking about self harm, about getting out of a system that could potentially be a life saver for them.”

And for many young adults, home isn’t a safe place to discuss their identities.

“So it’s really important for those kids to have a safe adult that they can speak with and a place where they feel respected and understood,” Walczak said. “Central Bucks’ new policy undermines that and puts vulnerable youth at significant risk.”

Medical research shows that barriers to gender affirmation lead to higher rates of suicide or depression among LGBTQ youth.

Klein said the vulnerability of LGBTQ youth weighs heavily on his mind, “I think a lot of us are very worried because many of us have lived through young people taking their lives or young people not intentionally taking their lives.”

Another Central Bucks teacher, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their job, said they feel the procedure “is a very thinly veiled anti-trans measure.”

Central Bucks policy is the latest in a series of apparently anti-LGBTQ directives

Teachers and community members have expressed concern about numerous policies and procedures at Central Bucks that they view as anti-LGBTQ.

In April, district administration directed school counselors to divide elementary students by the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identities, for their classes on puberty, called “Human Growth and Development.”

In May, the principal at Lenape Middle School, which sends students to Central Bucks West, instructed teachers to use student names that appear on the school’s database for students’ end of the year awards and certificates. If a student wanted to use a different pronoun or name that does not appear in the database, the principal said, the parent must make the change through the guidance office.

In the same month, another middle school principal instructed teachers to remove Pride flags hanging in their classrooms. The Central Bucks superintendent defended the guidance during a May school board meeting, and said, “Classrooms absolutely need to be apolitical.”

Following these decisions, the district passed a policy in July intended to filter books with “sexualized content” before they get placed on library shelves. The school board in August passed a policy censoring all class materials through similar vague selection criteria. Community members and the ACLU believe both policies will be used to target LGBTQ-related content.

Some Central Bucks West teachers have Pride flags in their classrooms. They worry that symbol, a sign of safety for many students, will be targeted next.

“I wouldn’t take it down,” one teacher said. “I’d say, ‘You take it down. I’m not touching it.’”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889. Help can also be accessed through the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741-741.

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