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Top stories of 2022: School policies targeting trans youth

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
Parents and students waved LGBTQ pride flags in the air as Lena Barnhat of Doylestown said schools should not be a place for promoting sexuality.

 Emily Rizzo / WHYY

Parents and students waved LGBTQ pride flags in the air as Lena Barnhat of Doylestown said schools should not be a place for promoting sexuality.

Stephanie Smith was working from home in December when she got a call from the vice principal at her son’s school in York County.  

He told her because of an “emergency directive” at Red Lion Area School district, her transgender son would no longer be able to use the boys’ bathroom. He was instead given the option to use a bathroom in the school’s administrative building.

“None of his classes are anywhere near the administration offices or health offices,” Smith said. “So he has to go out of his way and risk being tardy to classes so that he can use these restrooms.”

Smith said she never expected the school board to make such a decision. 

The school had been accommodating and had agreed to use his preferred name and correct pronouns. Smith’s son came out as transgender last summer at a time when he was already coping with a lot – starting a new school and dealing with his father’s refusal to accept his identity. 

The policy, she said, would out her son and make him more susceptible to bullying.

“With this ruling, he would have to start using the girls restroom, which would probably lead to complaints about a boy using the girls restroom and would bring out the fact that he is trans to all the rest of the students,” Smith said.

Red Lion’s board says the policy would affect six students out of a student population of about 1,450, the York Dispatch reported.

But Tesla Taliaferro, director of the Rainbow Rose Center–a center that provides resources to LGBTQ youth in York– says the policy itself could be stigmatizing for students who are grappling with their identity.

“That sends two messages that says to those six students, you don’t matter,” Taliaferro said. “But it also says to the rest of the student body who may or may not be considering coming out ‘do I come out and risk exposure or do I stay in the closet and risk health damage?’”

Red Lion is one of several districts across Pennsylvania where the rights of transgender students and LGBTQ issues became points of contention this year. 

In July, Hempfield School District ruled that transgender student athletes must compete on teams that correspond to their the sex listed on their birth certificates. 

Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Ollie Wenditz, 14, spoke at the meeting: “I am interested in sports, and if I were to try out for the basketball team, I would not at all want to be on the girls’ team. That would make me feel uncomfortable and not true to myself.”

The ACLU and LGBTQ organizations in central Pennsylvania said that policy violates Title IX, a federal law that states that no person will be discriminated against on the basis of sex “under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 

Department of Education rules say Title IX also protects LGBTQ students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Kristina Moon, senior attorney at the Education Law Center, said more parents have been contacting the center to seek legal guidance regarding discriminatory policies at school.

“We’ve been contacted about exclusion from sports teams, exclusion from bathroom and locker rooms for trans students, refusal to use identified names and pronouns for trans or non binary students, the banning of pride flags that promote equality for gay and trans students in classrooms,” Moon said.

At least seven districts have dealt with public complaints regarding anti-LGBTQ discrimination, including Central Bucks, which was sued by the ACLU. The lawsuit claims there is “a longtime toxic environment for LGBTQ students in the district’s schools.”

Taliaferro says his his center is responding to the backlash  encouraging parents and LGBTQ allies to run for school board.

“We are going to start having one-on-one conversations with members of the community that we know live in that district, ask them how we can support them, encourage them to run for school board, and I think we will continue to do that outreach and that advocacy, and that education for all areas of the York County Schools,” Taliaferro said.

Some  GOP state legislators spent a lot of time this year discussing transgender students and pushed for measures to limit how schools teach topics related to gender and identity.

State Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) introduced the “Empowering Parents in Education” bill, which would prohibit classroom instruction on gender and sexuality topics up to fifth grade.  A GOP-sponsored bill to ban transgender girls from sports made it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, but he vetoed it.

Nearly two dozen state lawmakers called on Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty to resign because the Department of Education website offers optional LGBTQ resources and sample curriculums that teachers can implement in their classes. 

An NPR analysis found that in the last two years state lawmakers across the country have introduced 306 bills regarding transgender youth.


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