New coalition forms to to fight extremism in schools

The Pennsylvanians for Welcoming and Inclusive Schools (PA WInS) Coalition formally announced its launch at a virtual press conference on Jan. 24. The group is a collective of students, teachers and guardians from various school districts across the state and leaders from organizations known for working against discrimination. 

Although many of the coalition’s members were first inspired to take action following book bans in their local school districts, they’re also fighting back against other forms of censorship, discriminatory policies — including those targeting trans and other LGBTQ+ students — as well as systemic racism, disinformation and other aspects of extremism.

A group of organizations “came together to form the beginnings of the PA WInS coalition with a goal to unite individuals and organizations that were all working against extremists in school boards and legislation,” said Alex Domingos, an advocacy and policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Although we are a diverse group of orgs that focus on different issues, we decided to unite in order to help create effective strategies, legislative (i.e. school board) policies, and mostly to support the already ongoing efforts by parents, students and advocates to create equitable and inclusive schools that foster belonging and success for all students.”

Some of the organizations represented at the coalition’s press conference included the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Human Rights Campaign, a Pennsylvania chapter of Red Wine & Blue (a grassroots community of suburban parents), the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, and Education Voters of PA.

Although these organizations offer a myriad of resources on their own, the coalition intends to make it easier for anyone who needs those resources to find them. One way they’ve accomplished this is by creating a tidy and straightforward hub.

“It’s really just to amplify, to put everything in a place that is digestible, that it’s accessible,” said Ashli Giles-Perkins, an attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

The coalition’s website is a tool for finding and sharing information that would otherwise only be accessible through each individual organization. It also offers more avenues for finding allies.

Attacks on diversity and inclusion, LGBTQ+ policy changes, censorship and books bans, curriculum changes, or other incidents can be reported by completing a brief form. Users can also request to talk to a coalition member who can offer support. Links to make official reports to various state and federal organizations tracking discrimination are also included. 

A comprehensive list of resources is compiled, offering links to learn more about LGBTQ+ issues, race, curriculum, book bans, advocacy and other relevant topics. News from around the state and events, such as upcoming virtual workshops, are posted to help those interested to learn more about what’s happening and how to get involved. 

The coalition is also a space for people to gather and take action together. A policy committee is tracking what’s happening across the state. Monthly meetings open to all provide professional training and offer space for advocates to connect and collaborate.

“I think one of the most impressive things about this coalition is that there’s so many different types of skills here,” said Adam Hosey, a parent from Manheim Township. “We’re getting messaging help, we’re getting comms help, we’re getting organizing help. We’re getting strategy help, tactical help.” 

Hosey and others in his school district fought against a proposed trans-exclusive student athlete policy. That discussion has been tabled for now, and Hosey credits that win to the joint work of local advocates and those in the coalition.

Coalition members spoke about the covert and encroaching influence of Christian nationalists and other radicals. They underlined that not every change occurring in schools will be obvious or public-facing. Some of the most damaging shifts in culture and messaging can take shape outside of formal meetings or policies — which can make them harder to spot. This, they highlighted, is why it’s so important to ask students about their experiences and listen closely to their concerns.

Tristan Dowd, co-president of the Panther Antiracist Union — an education and activism group for students in York County, said that students attended school board meetings and led protests in response to book bans in their district. The student actions were a success — and the books, which were written by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors, were reinstated — but it’s not the only thing that needs to change.

“There are some students that aren’t really taught [about discrimination] or don’t really care to learn more about it because it’s too difficult for them to understand or they just simply don’t care because it’s not towards them,” added Naomi Smith, another York student, who underlined that the lack of formal education offered to students about these issues is a major problem.

Many of the coalition members emphasized that the partnership helps students feel less alone in their fight to feel safer and more supported at school. It also benefits their guardians who have felt isolated in their own journeys to advocate for their kids at the local level.

“It is really nice to know that we aren’t alone,” added Hosey. “It is really essential for a group like this to help us connect the dots to what we are seeing across the state.”

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