In suburban Pa., school district defends transgender policy

A suburban Philadelphia school district has opted to defend its policy on transgender students in the face of a recent lawsuit.

Though it does not have an official written protocol, the Boyertown Area School District near Pottstown, Pennsylvania permits students to use the bathroom and locker room that matches their gender identity.

Earlier this month, an anonymous student, backed by a conservative group, sued the district claiming this practice violates his right to privacy and constitutes sexual harassment. The student is represented by the organization Alliance Defending Freedom, that has filed similar lawsuits in other states.  The Alliance and the student offered to settle the case if Boyertown Area officials would reverse their position.

After a charged public meeting Tuesday night, the district’s school board rejected that settlement agreement by a vote of 6-to-3.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

This headline-grabbing case will now move forward, joining a raft of similar suits that will eventually help determine the rights of transgender students in public schools.

And those rights were debated forcefully Tuesday night in this commuter community wedged in among Pottstown, Reading, and the outer fringes of the Main Line.

Though the tone was mostly civil, the words were often sharp. The arguments reflected a growing national debate on this contentious issue.

Stephanie Deiterich, mother of a transgender student, said her son had contemplated suicide. Policies like the one in Boyertown Area School District, she argued, are milestones of acceptance in an often-hostile world.

“When as a parent you read in black and white that your child is contemplating killing themselves or cutting themselves because they don’t fit in, it’s scary,” she said.

But other parents, like Ashley Hertzler feared the district’s policy could endanger their children’s privacy and make room for predatory behavior, though they did not cite any incidents when that had happened.

“Are you going to be able to stop these young men from going into my daughter’s locker room? I don’t think you can,” she said. “Once you set this precedent, it’s over.”

The Boyertown Area board meetings normally are held in a room that seats 25. Tuesday’s session was moved to a junior high auditorium and featured more than an hour of citizen testimony.

Board members also got their say, and didn’t hold back.

“It’s a blatant disregard of our duty and a sham to our community to create a social engineering laboratory with our children as the study subjects,” said board member Clay Breece, arguing against the district’s standing policy.

Superintendent Richard Faidley shot back.

“We don’t run a social laboratory. We run a public school system,” he said, adding that the policy was meant to protect the rights of all students.

So the night went, barbs traded back and forth as a divided audience alternated with rounds of applause.

A transgender student named Aidan De Stefano talked about his transition and the validation he felt when he could finally join the boys cross-country team. His mother, Melissa, recalled the confusion she felt when her son told her he was transgender.

“Sure I’d heard of it before, but I didn’t have a personal contact,” she said. “So off to the internet I went to find out what I had to do to help my son.”

There she read about the discrimination transgender students often face, she said, and the personal turmoil that can create.

“I was scared,” De Stefano said. “I didn’t want to lose my son.”

Others, though, said they felt under assault — forced to accept norms and values that don’t comport with their own. Many argued that the policy violated their religious beliefs. Others said it was a matter of observing traditional boundaries and used language that ignored how transgender students identify themselves.

“Even the possibility of a boy changing in front of my daughter in the school is just completely unethical. It’s immoral. And it’s completely wrong,” said Anson Flannery.

He added that the United States has “become weak because of this tolerance for things that are completely different and not the norm.”

The junior high school that hosted Tuesday night’s hearing is plastered with a series of banners declaring the school “no place for hate.” Just inside the main entryway a sign implores students to respect “individual differences everywhere.”

These are the kind of slogans one finds in so many public places these days, especially public schools. Rarely, though, are those passing by them forced to meditate on what exactly they mean. On Tuesday night, though, they read less like empty words and more like a communal litmus test.

How should Boyertown Area School District, and thousands like it across the country, respect “individual differences?” Whose differences take priority?

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal