Little state guidance: Pronoun debates lead to strife for York County school boards

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

York County schools are facing complicated debates over gender identity with little guidance from state officials amid increasingly heated anti-LGBTQ rhetoric nationwide.

All of this has led to several recent flare-ups at local school board meetings where parents decried discussions of LGBTQ issues in the classroom. In one case, a mother criticized school officials for allowing her child to use different pronouns for a year without informing their parents. In another, a father took issue with a teacher's use of nonbinary pronouns.

Mackenzie Arcuri, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the issue is still evolving.

“We do not have policy guide language that specifically addresses LGBTQIA students and staff,” she said. 

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In the Dover Area School District, a parent spoke out at a recent school board meeting, saying officials allowed her child to use a different name and gender for a year without being notified.

“(O)ur district believes they have the legal right to change the pronoun and legal name a child is referred to during the school day without notifying, discussing and or receiving parental consent to do so,” the mother said. 

While addressing the school board, the mother referenced the child by their birth pronouns. The York Dispatch has chosen not to identify the parent in order to protect the identity of the child.

Dover Area High School’s first day of the new school year in Dover on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

A few Dallastown Area School District parents asked the board in September why a science teacher was allowed to use they/them pronouns and requested that students be taught to use the correct pronouns. 

“Why do we have teachers letting our children know what their preferred pronouns are?” parent Alan Taylor said at the meeting. 

Taylor wanted to know why it was so important to use the correct pronouns.

School officials in Dallastown did not respond to requests for comment. Dover officials said the district has no comment on the matter.

"We all have the right to self-identify," said Joanne Carroll, executive director of the Lancaster-based Trans Advocacy Pennsylvania.

Carroll said she knew her gender when she was a child but wasn't ready to embrace that until much later in life. For her, it's still "incredibly hurtful" for people to misgender her or use her former name.

“It reminds me of the angst during that time,” she said, referring to the years before her transition.

Dallastown Area High School in York Township, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A number of proposals brought forward by Republicans in the state Legislature have sought to restrict such discussions in K-12 schools. Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation requiring student athletes to compete under the gender they were assigned at birth. Another bill restricting teachers from teaching anything about gender or sexual orientation through the fifth grade passed the state Senate this year but not the House.

House Bill 2813, which also restricts such lessons in school, specifically requires parents to be notified by a school district "if there is a change in services from the school regarding a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being."

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Such proposals have led to opposition from LGBTQ groups. The bill itself could put young people in danger because, as Rainbow Rose Center President Tesla Taliaferro said, it will try to "force schools to out students to their parents.”

“Schools are supposed to be one of those places where students should feel safe,” he said.

The sponsor of HB 2813, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton County, did not respond to requests for comment.

State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz

Carroll said, based on her experience of educating people about trans community rights, that this is a difficult topic because people misunderstand or are miseducated. 

“People have a tendency to confuse gender and sex,” Carroll said, explaining that there is a difference between who one goes to bed as versus who they go to bed with.

Taliaferro said many conservative lawmakers view the pronoun conversation as a part of the “woke movement,” which they are trying to push back against. 

“In reality, by identifying ourselves we’re giving each other the appropriate language in reference to ourselves,” he said. 

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Most of the places that schools would turn to for guidance on these matters — the tension between how students describe themselves and the demands of their parents — have little to give.

Arcuri said the Pennsylvania School Boards Association encourages school districts to work with their lawyers and consider laws such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act when working with the LGBT community to make the school a safe and supportive environment.

The policies and practices should be what the individual community needs, she said.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association declined comment.

Pennsylvania Department of Education Communications Director Casey Smith said it is necessary for the department to "support all learners" and make everyone feel welcome in the schools and communities. She said the state was founded on "principles of inclusion and belonging," so they will continue to strive to make everyone feel safe.

"The Wolf Administration supports equity, inclusion and belonging efforts in every school, and one way we can better serve our learners is by providing resources so that schools can support students who come from all walks of life," Smith said.

Rainbow Rose Center President Tesla Taliaferro

Taliaferro said if the students aren’t coming out to their parents, then the home may not be a safe environment and they could face homelessness, abuse or maliciousness from their family.

“Putting trust into a teacher — that trust should never be betrayed,” he said.

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Creating environments that allow everyone to be their authentic selves is where people can thrive, Taliaferro said. People can’t thrive in a fearful or bigoted environment. 

If there's any question about the issue, Taliaferro said school boards, faculty and staff should contact LGBTQ community organizations themselves, such as the center, to ask for education on the topics or at least ask questions about what to do.

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.