Bills for ‘safe and equal’ schools introduced in Harrisburg

A slate of bills dubbed “safe and equal schools” was recently introduced in Harrisburg. According to procedure, they were quickly assigned to the House Education Committee on Jan. 31. The slate currently consists of three bills: one addressing discrimination in schools, one mandating an inclusive curriculum, and one calling for anti-bullying policies.

According to Daye Pope, director of Civic Engagement for TAKE (Transgender Advocates Knowledgeable and Empowering) — an advocacy and lobbying group focusing on LGBTQ+ youth which helped craft the bills — a fourth bill dealing with bathroom policies is in the works. It is currently going through the process of being put into appropriate legislative language.

“This safe and equal schools slate of bills would make sure all of our kids are protected and have a healthy school environment, whether or not they’re LGBTQ,” Pope told PGN. “Let’s pass these bills so no young person has to wonder if they are safe or valued at school.” 

A legislative memo, co-authored by the four principal sponsors of each individual bill, was distributed to the Assembly members and the public, explaining the need for the legislation.

The memo reads: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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. Pennsylvania needs to do better to ensure no student suffers from discrimination in school and that every student receives inclusivity and support while learning and growing in their academic endeavors.”

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

HB1997, principally sponsored by Rep. Nancy Guenst (D-Dist 152; Montgomery County) is an anti-discrimination bill that “would create a clear statewide policy for all public schools to prohibit student discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression through anti-discrimination and harassment prevention and early intervention policies to create a supportive and equal opportunity learning environment,” according to the memo.

HB1998, principally sponsored by Rep. Joseph Hohenstein (D-Dist. 177; Philadelphia County) would ensure “inclusive school curriculum and the representation of 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.”

HB1999, principally sponsored by Rep. Paul Takac (D-Dist.82; Centre County) addresses the issues of bullying and support for marginalized students. It calls on school districts to “ensure every school district has a clear policy for trans and non-binary students. This 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.”

The fourth bill has not yet been formally introduced into the Assembly and a formal introduction date has not been announced. It will be principally sponsored by Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El (D-Dist. 49; Lancaster County). This will probably be the most controversial bill in the slate, as it deals with the issue of trans students’ use of bathrooms and participation in school sports. This has been a hot-button issue at school board meetings across Pennsylvania as local boards attempt to put policies in place — some pro-trans, some anti-trans — and immediately face ferocious pushback from outraged community members on both sides of the issue.

Smith-Wade-El’s proposal “would provide for inclusive school bathrooms and locker rooms. It 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.”

It is unlikely that this slate of bills will make immediate progress in the Education Committee, as the State House is currently in recess and won’t reconvene until March 18.

Newsletter Sign-up