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Beaver County school board passes slate of policies targeting LGBTQ students

A poster for the South Side High School's Gay Straight Alliance hangs outside of the school library where a board committee debates pronoun usage.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A poster for the South Side High School's Gay Straight Alliance hangs outside of the school library where a board committee debates pronoun usage.

Officials with a Beaver County school passed a policy Wednesday that excuses teachers from using the gender pronouns or preferred name of LGBTQ students if doing so “would violate the conscience of the speaker.”

According to South Side Area School District’s new policy, “students or school personnel shall not be forced to use language inconsistent with their beliefs,” adding school personnel who refuse to use a requested pronoun as a matter of conscience need not do so, although they still must avoid addressing the student by the unwanted first name and pronoun.

A majority of the district’s board approved the measure, as well as two additional resolutions restricting students’ access to sports teams and shared bathrooms separate from the ones that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth.

The proposals were first introduced in December, shortly after a slate of newly-elected Republican board members were seated.

Teacher Daren Cusato thanked board members prior to the vote Wednesday for writing the policies, which he said made “tangible the desires of your constituency to preserve truth, compassion, parental and religious rights.”

The Beaver County district temporarily suspended Cusato in 2022 after he refused to use a student’s preferred name or pronouns, citing religious freedoms. He has since been reinstated.

But another teacher voiced concerns to WESA that the policy would make it harder for educators to create a safe environment for their LGBTQ students. According to the approved policy, school personnel can only use a name or pronoun that differs from a student’s official record if requested by the student’s parents, or by students 18 and older.

“This means that students who had safe spaces in the school, it’s going to be harder for them to identify who the safe spaces are with, and harder for them to find those places — what few there are in the school right now,” the teacher said.

The teacher, who requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation from the school board, said many LGBTQ students in the district already hide their identity from others. Even before the new policies, according to the teacher, no student has tried to use a bathroom or join a team separate from those that align with their sex assigned at birth.

“Students would not have the willingness to do that because they'd be too afraid of repercussions for trying to do that,” the teacher said.

The new policies were drafted, in consultation with the district’s solicitor, by attorneys with the Independence Law Center. The organization is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit that is part of a national network of Christian groups.

The network advocates against abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender-affirming medical care for transgender people. In Pennsylvania, the institute lobbied for statewide legislation that would ban transgender girls and women from participating in school sports, though it was vetoed by then-Gov. Tom Wolf.

Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the Independence Law Center, told WESA that South Side Area School District approached the organization to represent the district. He said the policies were meant to “ensure full transparency with the school community.

“[They] promote an environment of mutual respect by providing consistent standards for recordkeeping and addressing students, providing a process for accommodations, recognizing parental authority to make health decisions for their children, providing separation of multi-user privacy facilities and athletic teams based on sex,” Samek continued. “These policies provide reasonable accommodations to benefit all students while still protecting the purpose for which women’s sports and separate multi-user privacy facilities exist.”

Samek has helped craft similar measures at other schools, including Central Bucks School, Red Lion Area School District in York County and Hempfield in Lancaster County.

Kristina Moon with the Education Law Center said it’s part of a national push “for these outside national groups to fund and try to advise local school boards.”

Moon said these policies are devastating to transgender and non-binary kids, many of whom are already ostracized and discriminated against at school.

“And [it] creates a hostile environment in the schools that stigmatizes these children and really, unfortunately, gives permission to other kids to see them as other and wrong,” she added. “That can set up a really dangerous environment where those kids are harassed, and even subject to physical assault.”

Moon pointed to the death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict, a non-binary student from Oklahoma who died one day after an altercation in a school restroom.

The teacher who spoke to WESA said at South Side Area School District, which serves just under 1,000 students near the state’s western border, signs for the high school’s gay-straight alliance have been torn down, and transgender students are targeted by bullying.

At Wednesday’s meeting, one school board member questioned whether medical experts concerned about the potential harms of the new policies should be trusted.

Jenny Unger, the parent of an elementary school student in the district, said she has considered moving districts because of how extreme she feels the issue has become.

“There are students that have spoken up in previous meetings of how they transferred in their senior years because they felt so pressured,” Unger said. “I'm honestly disgusted that this school and the community hasn't felt a need to address those issues and change them, to keep our people here and build our community stronger rather than let it tear itself apart.”

One board member, Shelley Youree, voted against the pronoun and bathroom provisions due to fears the district will be violating state and federal laws. Advocates say the policies directly violate Title IX, which ensures LGBTQ students and others have equitable access to education free from sex discrimination.

“There's some fear about how this is all going to play out,” Unger said. “But I'm glad that at least there are people bringing more attention to the issue, because this could be a grander scale discrimination issue that our whole community will have to deal with if our school is put in that position.”

Jillian Forstadt