South Western school board seeks lawyers to defend anti-LGBTQ+ policies

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The board of a Pennsylvania school district is seeking legal counsel to defend their ability to override LGBTQ+ protections for students, including policies relating to Title IX, bathroom use, sports and pronouns.

When the new Republican-majority school board for South Western School District in York County was sworn in last December, the incoming conservative board president, Matthew Gelazela, made it clear that his top priority would be to rescind or revise school policies that safeguarded the civil rights of LGBTQ+ students. At the Jan. 10 board meeting, Gelazela announced that the Republican majority is seeking to revise policies in a way that would remove gender identity from Title IX protections. They also are proposing policies that would restrict transgender students’ use of bathrooms, their participation on sports teams and, more broadly, the use of pronouns in schools.

Gelazela maintained that the majority of the school board believes that sex is determined at birth, and that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission overstepped its authority when it defined sex as gender-identity inclusive.

“Our bathrooms should be separated according to birth sex,” Gelazela said at the meeting. “That’s how we protect our students.”

When those proposals were first floated by Gelazela in December, both the district’s law firm, Stock & Leader, and Superintendent Jay Burkhardt advised the board against potentially discriminatory policies.

Knowing full well that violating state and federal civil rights guidelines would leave the district open to legal consequences, Gelazela is shopping around for law firms willing to take on the defense of the district’s proposed actions.

“There are multiple firms that very firmly believe this is defendable,” Gelazela said, explaining that the board is currently exploring which firms are willing to put in a request for proposal to serve as special counsel in the subject. Once a firm is selected, Gelazela said the board will work with the counsel to draft revisions to policies regarding these subjects.

At issue are Policy 103, the district’s discrimination and Title IX sexual harassment policy for students, and Policy 711, the district’s student bathroom policy.

In December, the new Republican board voted against updating 103 to bring it in line with updated state and federal guidelines for Title IX that include gender identity as a protected class. The sought-after revisions to Policy 711 would rescind a policy hashed out in a contentious six-month process and approved unanimously by the previous board in August, which sought to accommodate the needs of all students.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, the board did not put forward specific proposals to change 103 or 711, citing the need to acquire special counsel to draft the changes. Despite that, during the meeting, several board members gave their view on the potential changes. Board member Amanda Weaver, a Republican, who was not on the ballot in November’s elections, voiced her concern for the direction the board majority was heading.

“We sit here to make policy to better the lives of all students, and all students is all students,” Weaver said. “Every pair of shoes that goes through those thresholds every day deserves protection.”

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