Can a Lancaster school district restrict how trans athletes play sports?
A school district in Lancaster County is considering a policy to bar transgender students from competing in teams that correspond to their gender. Legal experts and some school board members say if the policy is approved, it could face challenges in court.
In front of the Hempfield School District’s administrative building, a group of about 30 people stand on the sidewalk holding a rainbow flag banner.
Some are parents of students in the district. Others traveled from nearby communities.
Amity Rainier and her wife drove from Mechanicsburg to join the protest
It’s personal for her: Rainier grappled with coming out as transgender when she was a high school student in the county.
“I like showing up to show trans students that may or may not be out yet that like, 'Hey, you're not alone, and it does get better,'" Rainier said.
They have joined together to speak out against the district’s new proposed athletic policy to prohibit transgender athletes from competing in teams that align with their gender.
If approved, it would require students to compete in teams that correspond with their sex assigned at birth.
The issue has bubbled up at Hempfield over the last few weeks.
School board members who voted in favor of the policy, like Justin Wolgemuth, said it’s about protecting girls.
"This to me comes down to safety and the differences biologically between male and female," Wolgemuth said.
At a meeting on June 14th, he joined six of his colleagues to vote in favor of advancing the policy. Two board members voted no.
School psychologists and social workers have warned the policy could affect transgender students’ mental health and feelings of safety instead.
M.K. Strohman is a licensed social worker and former trans school athlete. Strohman met with Hempfield School District board members last March to make the case.
“Anytime you're excluding LGBTQ youth from something, or, you know, saying you can or can't participate in this way that either honors or dishonors who you are," Strohman said. "That is harmful, that has a rippling harmful effect."
A national survey from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showed 84% of transgender students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
"And their question was, well, how does allowing transgender students to participate harm cisgender students?" Strohman said, referencing the survey. "And we said we couldn't answer that because there isn't data on that."
On the legal front, experts say the policy could also be in violation of Title IX, a federal civil rights law that protects students from sex-based discrimination.
The protections apply to gender identity and sexual orientation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Kristina Moon, senior attorney with the Education Law Center, said schools that don’t comply with Title IX can face consequences.
“They can lose federal funding if the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights finds violations of Title IX," Moon said. "It's also bad policy for boards to pass laws that are clearly in violation of existing law. because it just opens them to challenges and lawsuits and that costs money to defend."
Jim Maurer, a Hempfield school board member who voted against the proposed policy, said the district’s legal counsel had warned against it.
"The school board was advised not to be the first in Pennsylvania to adopt this type of policy," Maurer said. "We were advised to let the dust settle, let the legislature or other bodies make this decision, so that we were not striking out as a lone ranger, if you will."
In Pennsylvania, three cases involving transgender students have resulted in decisions that ruled in favor of those students.
Stuart Knade is chief Legal officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, an organization that advises school boards in the state. The group was not involved in crafting Hempfield’s policy.
"The trend has been pretty clear that districts that are taking a hostile approach towards treatment of transgender students tend to be losing the court almost all the time," Knade said.
The board is expected to have a final vote on the proposed athletic policy at the next meeting on July 12.
The Republican-led state legislature passed a bill at the end of June that would require transgender women athletes in public schools and universities to compete in men’s or co-ed teams.
Governor Tom Wolf has vowed to veto that bill.