York County school board plans anti-LGBTQ+ policy changes

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York County’s South Western School District was one of the jurisdictions that bucked the pro-Democratic trend in last fall’s elections. Of the five seats up for grabs on South Western’s school board, all five were won by conservative Republicans. The new board was sworn in on Dec. 6, at which Matthew Galazela, a libertarian who was already on the board, was sworn in as president.

The new board wasted no time in illustrating its conservative agenda, announcing its plans to modify or initiate policies that directly attack LGBTQ+ students. The first action the board plans to move on is to remove gender identity from the district’s sexual harassment policy. Critics maintain that doing so would violate Title IX protections, putting South Western in direct conflict with state and federal law.

Nevertheless, Republican board members pushed forward with the proposed action, citing concerns with frequent and familiar conservative anti-trans tropes: transgender student athletes or the perceived threat of trans people in bathrooms. At the Dec. 6 meeting, Keith Gelsinger, one of the new Republican board members, said he would refuse to sign off on any policy that didn’t strictly define gender as sex assigned at birth. Board president Matthew Gelazela reiterated those points.

It should be noted that there have been no reports of there being any trans students among the student bodies of any of the schools in South Western’s district.

The district’s own attorney, Leigh Dalton, discouraged the board from stripping gender identity from the district’s sexual harassment policy. Any action the board takes, she said, will not change the board’s requirement to comply with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s law. She said the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has only weighed on the subject to say students using bathrooms matching their gender identity does not violate the rights of students whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Dalton made it clear that the board’s proposed actions would leave the district open for Title IX lawsuits.

At several meetings prior to his ascension to the board presidency, Gelazela made his agenda clear. For instance, Gelazela had pushed for the district to adopt more restrictive anti-LGBTQ+ policies akin to what Red Lion Area School District’s board approved back in June.

Red Lion is another York County school district. On the first day of Pride Month, Red Lion Area board officials passed a series of restrictive policies in response to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that control which bathrooms students can use, which sports teams they can join and even what pronouns they can use. In addition to an already restrictive bathroom policy requiring students to use the facilities that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate, the district’s elected school board enacted a similar policy with regard to athletics. Yet another policy would require parents to sign off if a student’s pronouns don’t align with their birth certificate. Furthermore, it creates an exemption wherein other students and staff aren’t required to honor those pronouns, even if the student’s parents support their use.

Despite a lengthy public comment session at the roughly two-hour meeting — during which the majority of speakers opposed the anti-LGBTQ+ policies — the Republican-dominated board did not discuss the measures before unanimously approving them.

The Red Lion Area School District is another Pennsylvania district where Republicans made a clean sweep in last November’s board elections.

In his lengthy inaugural speech reiterating his previously outlined policy proposals, Gelazela also advocated for a policy that would categorize teaching materials and give parents the ability to prohibit student access based on “sexual orientation, transgenderism, communist Marxist support, specific religious or political ideologies and racial divides.”

In a statement to the press, Kristina Moon — senior attorney at Education Law Center — said, “It’s really state and federal law that directs how children have to be treated in public schools, not any personal belief system or political viewpoints.” 

Moon added that it’s important for school policies to be consistent with the law.

“Refusing to follow the current law is not advisable,” she said.

The next South Western school board meeting, during which policy proposals will be discussed and/or initiated, will be Jan. 10.

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