Pennridge school board rescinds anti-trans bathroom policy

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At a hotly contentious meeting on May 13, the Pennridge School District board voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to rescind its controversial Policy 720, which mandated that students are required to use bathrooms that matched their sex assigned at birth. The policy is to be replaced by an Administrative Regulation (AR), which is hoped to accommodate the needs of all students.

After the vote, Laura Foster—a progressive activist with the RIDGE Network, a local grassroots advocacy group which has been lobbying against the anti-trans policy—said, “Overall this is a step in the right direction for Pennridge School District. For far too long our trans students have been targeted by school board policy identifying their existence as ‘controversial.’ But, I think it’s important to note that it is unclear if Title IX guides Administrative Regulations the same way as a School Board  policy. If our district is continuing on their separate but equal stance it could still be in violation of Title IX. It just washes the board’s hands of it.”

The difference between an AR and an official policy is that the AR will be administered by the district’s administration under the school superintendent, while an official policy is administered by the board. The legal nuances of the distinction, and how Title IX applies, will need to be worked out in the future in consultation with the district’s legal counsel.

The previous Republican-led board had been warned by the district’s legal counsel that 720 left the school open to Title IX violations and other possible legal ramifications.

The battle over Policy 720 and the AR that is to replace it has been a contentious one. The attendance at the May 13 meeting was dominated by supporters of 720 who passionately urged the board to keep the policy in place. The public comments were predictable, focusing on the alleged danger the policy change would pose to students.

However, one of the few parents who spoke in favor of the change posed the question, “What are you afraid of?”

Commenting on the fear-mongering, Foster said, “As evidenced by the abundance of comments made against trans students made last night, which equated being trans to a mental health illness and evoking the Bible to deny these students right to exist, our community has a long way to go to understand the trans experience.”

The new AR mandates that, in addition to the standard boys/girls bathrooms for the majority of students, the school will provide single occupant accommodations for students who require a greater level of privacy, as well as additional bathrooms to accommodate the gender identity of trans students.

The board also adopted a new student hall pass system to provide additional security as needed.

Controversy over the proposed change in bathroom policy has been dominating the agenda of Pennridge’s board since Democrats took over the board at the last election. The initial first read of the proposed changes for public debate happened at the board’s April 8 meeting of the policy committee. That meeting was also dominated by highly vocal opponents of any change in policy.

Most of the community members that spoke at that first reading also betrayed the same lack of knowledge of trans issues common among conservative anti-LGBTQ+ activists, such as equating trans girls as boys.

After the April 8 meeting, Foster said, “What we saw tonight was a battle against discrimination. Unfortunately, we are in a district where there is open hate towards our LGBTQIA students. These kids have lived it for the last several years, burdened under policies that restrict who they are. Our past school board was perhaps the most extremist in the country, limiting student expression, banning rainbow flags, ignoring instances of racism and homophobia, transphobia, labeling them as a one-off bullying instance. Tonight was a chance for our new board to do right and stop the discrimination. It’ll be a difficult fight to get [the policy change] actually passed, but if this district wants to stand on the right side of history, they have no other choice.”

While the rescinding of 720 was a victory for trans rights, the battle is not over. For example, the new AR does not address the issue of locker rooms or school athletics, which will continue to be handled “on a case-by-case basis.”

Foster knows that she and her allies still have much work to do. 

“We at RIDGE Network are committed to fighting for these and all disenfranchised students,” Foster said. “The vitriol of the Christian Nationalist and alt right fundamentalists will only serve to make our commitment stronger. These kids need to know there are adults who love and support them.”

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