State legislators propose measures to protect LGBTQ+ students

The Pennsylvania state flag
The Pennsylvania state flag. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

In response to the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and hate speech in Pennsylvania public schools, Harrisburg legislators working with the PA Coalition for Trans Youth announced a slate of prospective bills that aim to make schools safer and less toxic for LGBTQ+ students.

Representatives of the PA Coalition, several of the bills’ sponsors, and prominent local political allies such as State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Ben Waxman, City Councilperson-elect Rue Landau, and representatives of trans advocacy organization TAKE announced the proposed legislation at a November 28 press conference at the William Way LGBT Community Center.

The four bills, which are currently in the process of being put in final legislative language, will be introduced simultaneously when the State House returns to session later this month. The legislators proposing the bills are Rep. Joseph C. Hohenstein, Rep. Nancy Guenst, Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, and Rep. Paul Takac. All are Democrats.

According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toxic and discriminatory environments in school not only exacerbate mental and emotional challenges for students, but also cause developmental lags that can have destructive lasting effects. The CDC’s data further points out that when schools are more open, affirming, and supportive of LGBTQ+ students, all young people feel safer at school and have better mental health outcomes.

The legislators proposing the bills said in a memo that “two out of every five students experience emotional and mental health challenges in schools. This student mental health crisis is exacerbated for students who experience discrimination and harassment based on their actual or perceived sex or gender identity or expression and feel disconnected from their peers and teachers. Inclusive gender-based policies and curriculum emphasize anti-discrimination and anti-bullying by building engagement and connections among students and their school communities. Additionally, they create safe learning environments and result in all students experiencing less emotional stress, violence, harassment, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

The memo goes on to state “Our comprehensive legislative package provides student protections from gender-based discrimination, bullying, and harassment, and provides inclusive accommodations and curriculum.”

Below are descriptions of the four different bills proposed, designated by each bill’s principal sponsor.

Hohenstein’s bill would ensure inclusive school curricula that represents all student identities by requiring age-appropriate curriculum for K-12 students on the experiences, perspectives, and social, political, and economic contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals. The bill would also prevent the banning of age-appropriate books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters from school libraries.

Guenst’s bill is a nondiscrimination bill that would create a statewide policy to prohibit discrimination or harassment in all Pennsylvania public schools based on actual or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. It would mandate the creation of anti-discrimination policies, which would include harassment prevention and early intervention.

Smith-Wade-El’s bill would provide for inclusive school bathrooms and locker rooms, and would require that new construction and renovations of school buildings have a universal construction design for restrooms and locker rooms that provide at least one gender neutral restroom for every three school restrooms and ensure that students can use the restroom and locker rooms/athletic facilities that align with their gender identity. Additionally, it would allow students to participate in athletic programs based on their consistently asserted gender identity and use the school facilities and be treated consistently with that identity.

Takac’s bill would mandate that every school district has a clear policy for trans and non-binary students. The policy must extend schools’ anti-bullying and retaliation policies to these individuals, establish best practices for student and family support during a student’s transitioning period, respect a student’s privacy, and include students’ preferred identity and pronouns.

According to Daye Pope, a spokesperson for TAKE, “These bills will help ensure a positive environment for all students, and all students will benefit from that.”

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