Pennridge School Board’s Continued Attacks on LGBTQ Community Show a Lack Empathy, Decency, and Logic

If someone says you are doing something harmful, be humble enough to look into it and critically self-reflect. This would be a good start.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This oped is to continue the thought from my recent comment at the Policy/Curriculum committee meeting on September 18, 2023 (1:33:46). 

As a white, hetero, cis male raised Catholic, I find myself in a place of self-reflection, anger, and bewilderment when it comes to how Pennridge school board treats the LGBTQIA community, which includes the students it is tasked with protecting. 

The constant portrayal of students through policies such as Policy 321 (Advocacy Activities), Policy 720 (Use of Restroom and Locker Room Facilities), and now Policy 123.3 (Sex-Based Distinctions in Athletics) makes it look as if we have teachers making kids queer and trans, predators in bathrooms/locker rooms, and most recently boys acting as girls simply to gain a competitive advantage in sports. 

As you read my description, I fit virtually all social norms. Although I have lived through my own personal struggles, they were not compounded with any type of prejudice. My pain has made me want to understand the struggle of others. This is partly because it enables me to connect on a deeper level with others, and another is that I truly want to gain a better understanding of the human experience. This need for understanding has allowed me to heal from my own struggles as I learned I was not alone in my pain. Yet I find that with every person I speak with, the pain they have endured is simply exponentially deeper. 

Think of this before you can even begin the thought of self-discovery. What kind of pain do you think society causes on the individual? What struggle do you think is caused by your views? Does your morality lead to your personal outrage? I think of these things when I find myself lacking understanding in social situations. Have I caused this person or group pain? How can I be better in handling this situation in the future? Although these are only a few questions we can ask ourselves, they all lead to the same place for anyone on this path. Decency. Something we seem to have lost in all this fighting is the ability to treat another human being with simple decency. Instead of judgment, we should seek understanding. Instead of anger and hatred, we should be curious and interested. I do not see this in the current school board. When they should raise flags to create pause, they forcibly move forward with zero regard of outcome or the collateral damage that will ensue. It is because of this, that I along with so many others engage and advocate for change. The pain that they create hurts those that need our love, understanding, curiosity, and support more than anyone, our children.

That brings me to anger. 

Within my school district, this is now a pattern of behavior by this board. Since COVID, the board has twice disbanded attempts at Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The first started by Dr Bolton and his administration and the second by the board when they attempted to disband the first. Both were active attempts for people to better understand each other. Unfortunately, neither were given the credence they deserved by the board. 

Then they changed Policy 109 to include a morality clause, thus removing function and objective thought from our policies.They initially used this to force their opinions of the COVID pandemic upon the entire district and circumvent all levels of government and authority. In that same time frame, they removed potential resources from the approved curriculum because a group called Parents 4 Educational Liberty (P4EL) felt the resources would shame their white children. It is important to note that this created the foothold for the Mothers for Liberty group to create these new and improved ways to hurt others. They continued by removing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) from our Comprehensive Plan. This has been in our plans in one form or another for decades, because teachers and their students could have different backgrounds and it is important to find ways to connect. This is something all successful school districts have in common. 

They ramped up the speed of these attacks once this current board elected their de facto leaders in David Reiss as President, Megan Banis-Clemens as Vice-President, and Jordan Blomgren as Curriculum chair in December 2022. Along with board members Bob Cormack and Ricki Chaikin, they created the “5” for the board majority. Through this “5,” they have passed Policy 321 that removes a teacher’s ability to advocate for their students and creates a climate of fear and self-censorship as teachers have to worry about having any type of conversation on topics that the far-right/Moms for Liberty-dominated board may consider inappropriate: “Employees shall not engage in advocacy  activities during assigned work hours on property under the jurisdiction of the Board. Further, all staff will retain their personal views and remain neutral on advocacy-related matters during assigned work hours.” This policy also forced teachers and staff to remove such items as stickers that displayed “safe space” and pride flags, both which were approved to have by the administration. The teachers and staff are no longer empowered to help a child in crisis in the same capacity. It makes you wonder if the board thinks that the teachers are the ones making these students think they are queer, trans, or identify differently. As if the teachers and staff are either creating, enabling or pushing these students into being something the board does not understand or clearly approve of, or understand. 

Next, they approved Policy 720 that took steps to over-specify what the terms “gender” and “sex” mean to them and how they will be used. This clearly attacks students that are either trans or identify differently. This fear that a student will utilize being trans or gender identity as a mechanism to be a predator is horrifying. I agree that if this situation were to present itself, it is one of the worst potential situations. This policy will not stop this potential from happening. In fact, it overshadows the fact that it already has and continues to happen, just not to the students they act to be worried about. Those students that have now “outed” are the ones in peril. They are the ones that have been attacked exponentially more in and out of school, yet they are the ones being regulated. Now, the board wants to go a step further and show the world that trans students do not belong in sports – that they threaten the very fabric of women’s and girls’ sports. I’m sorry, but where have they been? Why do they think that trans people haven’t been in sports all this time? 

Furthermore, the teachers, staff, and administrators that would advocate so beautifully for our children are, in many cases, the sole reason why that student in need has any chance of survival and/or success. The stories I have listened to directly from parents, teachers, staff, and students themselves break my heart. It is one thing to know things happen, and another to hear directly. When you feel like the whole world hates you and you do not have the capacity to change, because there is nothing wrong with you, having someone who cares enough becomes an anchor for that life, a potential beacon of light in a pitch black world. This board has shown to be callous enough to take this away.

Sadly, there are already policies in place that empower the administrators, teachers, and staff to discreetly handle the bathroom/locker room matters. In fact, the “5” have yet to provide any instance that a situation has incurred that would warrant such extreme actions. If you feel this is a larger issue, a policy is not the needed response. All this policy does is create a toxic environment where discrimination is condoned rather than erased. I understand there is no perfect solution here, but that’s because there does not need to be one. The best version is where people simply mind their own space and manners and treat others with dignity. 

What data, expert opinion, or legal advice did this board receive to initiate any of this? Before making their decisions? Did they look to make a panel of people that would be affected by this? Maybe have a forum to discuss? Reach out to parents or field experts to attain better understanding? Or are they just horrible people looking to force their morality upon the rest of us. Here are some points I hope they take away from this:

Stop expecting “perfect” solutions. They do not exist. Instead, you should be seeking to learn, adapt, and find ways to enable success for all students.

Stop making policies on things you do not, have not, and care not to understand. They are deeply harmful and the consequences of your actions drastically outweigh anything you hope to achieve.

Each generation becomes more open to understanding than the previous. Observe, be curious, and ask questions. Please understand that none of these concepts are new. They have always existed. They do not threaten you, your way of life, your religion, your morality, or your pursuit of happiness.

Just be a decent person. If someone says you are doing something harmful, be humble enough to look into it. You are not even remotely close to being decent currently, but there’s always an opportunity for change. Your fear does not override another person’s rights.

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David O'Donnell

David O'Donnell recently ran for School Board Director in Pennridge SD. He has been a manager in Retail and Hospitality for over 20 years. He works within the community through organizations such as Pennridge Democrats. He is also a coach in the Pennridge Little League.

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