West Shore School District’s outreach to right-wing law firm sparks protest

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West Shore School District’s (WSSD) board has entered talks to partner with a right-wing law firm to craft new school policies, sparking protests from area residents.

West Shore School District, which serves parts of York and Cumberland counties near Harrisburg, has traditionally been a relatively progressive district, previously establishing curricula to teach their students empathy and social emotional learning. However, such efforts made WSSD a target for conservative individuals and organizations such as Moms for Liberty and America First Legal.

Recent reports have surfaced that Moms for Liberty, long known for attempting to impose homophobic and transphobic policies in schools, has been able to expand its influence within the West Shore school board. And now, new evidence has come to light that seems to confirm that WSSD is taking a distinct right-wing turn. Notably, in last fall’s school board elections, Republicans, many of them M4L supporters, won a narrow majority of seats.

On March 18, the WSSD board, at the invitation of new board president Heidi Thomas, held a closed-door meeting with Jeremy Samek of the Independence Law Center (ILC).

According to a board notice on the WSSD website, “This session is being held for the sole purpose of gathering and receiving information relative to ILC legal services and policy. The primary content of the meeting will be receipt of information from ILC, and there will be no deliberation on any subject matter.”

However, as mandated by the Sunshine Act, any school board meeting at which school business is deliberated or discussed must be open to the public — which this meeting specifically was not. Were the board seen as flouting the terms of the Sunshine Act, the district would be opening itself to possibly expensive legal action if residents decided to sue.

However, the statement did not specify why the district is meeting with ILC, or what information they are seeking.

The Independence Law Center defines itself as “a public-interest civil rights law firm affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization funded through tax-deductible contributions that works to preserve religious liberty, promote marriage and the family, protect human life, and improve education and policy for our clients.”

According to their website, the mission of the Pennsylvania Family Institute is “to strengthen families by restoring to public life the traditional, foundational principles and values essential for the well-being of society. We are the only full-time, professionally staffed non-profit organization representing family values—your values—in the state capitol. We encourage responsible citizenship and involvement in civic affairs to promote respect for life, family, marriage and religious liberty. Our goal is for Pennsylvania to be a place where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.”

In addition to ILC, the Institute is affiliated with a number of right-wing advocacy groups, including the PA Family Council, the Church Ambassador Network, City on the Hill, among others.

In recent years, under Sanek’s direction, ILC has been increasingly busy quietly writing discriminatory policies for right-wing school board members — most notably Central Bucks. ILC usually manages to fly under a community’s radar because Sanak often works pro bono, technically relieving conservative board members of the legal obligation to inform other board members or the community of the help Sanak has given in crafting regressive school policies.

It’s this cloak of secrecy that right-wingers often hide behind that concerned a number of grassroots progressive activists. Familiar with ILC’s history of helping right-wingers in multiple other Pennsylvania school districts, when these activists learned at the last minute about the closed-door meeting between WSSD’s board and ILC’s Sanak, they quickly took to social media to organize a rally outside WSSD’s administration building, where the meeting was to take place.

At the rally, dozens of parents, residents, teachers and students marched, many carrying signs that read “Ban Hate Not Books” and “Trust Our Educators.”

One big concern for many of the demonstrators was the lack of transparency the closed-door meeting represented. One protester, Jennifer Gilmore, who teaches at West Shore, said, “I think there is a hidden agenda to get another law firm involved. Heidi [Thompson, WSSD board president] is claiming to be transparent. They are not being transparent, holding closed-door meetings.”

One parent expressed concern over what possible impact a partnership between WSSD and ILC would have on religious and LGBTQ+ places within the district, saying, “It’s really important to me that religion policy isn’t put into our school district. As a non-religious parent with non-religious children, it’s really important.”

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