Haverford Twp. activists press school board for transgender student policy
On Nov. 9, stunned and depressed over the election of President Trump, Allie Armstrong of Havertown took to social media to ask her friends how to spin something positive from a result they viewed as not just a defeat but a national crisis.
"I put out a random Facebook post and had a dozen friends say, 'Oh, me too,' " recalled Armstrong, who stays home with her two young children and has a background in social work. "I thought that I and my dozen friends would be getting together to write letters or protest."
Less than four months later, nearly 60 members of the group they founded – the Havertown Area Community Action Network (HCAN) – packed a standing-room-only Haverford Township School District board meeting to demand an inclusive policy toward transgender students in response to the Trump administration's retreat on the issue.
Last week's big turnout impelled district officials to promise a policy – either a standalone or an amended nondiscrimination code that specifically addresses transgender issues — as soon as September.
HCAN's victory was emblematic of forces, unleashed by Trump's election, that are beginning to shake up politics, even at local levels. One of many Philadelphia-area Trump-resistance groups that have emerged since November, it has 1,000 Facebook followers and a couple dozen highly active members. Its demand for transgender student rights is just the start.
Armstrong said members are also campaigning for racial justice and gerrymandering reform, and recruiting local council candidates in Delaware County, where Hillary Clinton won 59 percent of the vote even as Trump narrowly took Pennsylvania.
HCAN's working group on LGBTQ rights was inspired to spring into action by the Trump administration's reversal in late February of Obama-era federal guidelines that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their chosen gender. The rollback was followed early this month by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear the transgender rights case of Gavin Grimm, a Virginia student.
Those two events "inspired me to call the school district and say, 'What's our policy?' " said Jean Lutes, a Villanova University English professor, mother of two Haverford grade schoolers, and a member of the LGBTQ working group. "The answer was that [district officials] accommodate students individually, but there's no policy."
In the last year or so, the Philadelphia School District and at least a half-dozen suburban districts, including Lower Merion, Upper Dublin, Radnor, Rose Tree-Media, and Great Valley, have adopted policies supporting the rights of transgender students, including using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group GLSEN, said that as a result of the Trump administration's policy reversal, advocates have intensified their efforts to work with local districts to adopt clear and inclusive transgender student policies. The Obama administration had taken steps to establish "gender identity" rights under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.
"There's been tremendous confusion and fear among families about what's going to happen now," Byard said. At GLSEN, she added, "we work at the local level across the country, and we see a lot of schools that are interested in doing the right thing."
When activists flooded last Thursday's Haverford board meeting — including a half-dozen who spoke in favor of a transgender policy — their cause drew a mostly supportive response from initially surprised board members. It led to a subsequent meeting between HCAN members and Superintendent Maureen Reusche, who pledged to work on new guidelines.
Reusche and board members noted that Haverford has policies that more broadly address LGBTQ rights and related issues such as bullying, but until now, transgender students have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The superintendent said she has been in touch with colleagues in neighboring districts that already have transgender policies and noted there are a number of issues – from teacher training to allowing transgender students to put a new name on their diplomas – that need to be resolved.
"Some districts have created policies pertaining solely to transgender students, others have taken nondiscrimination policies and embedded language in there to protect and provide for transgender students," Reusche said. Haverford would "talk to people in those districts to determine why we would go one way or another."
School Board President Denis Gray said, "This is a topic our district has been dealing with for a very long time — to make sure school is a welcoming and safe place for all students, not just transgender." But he and other board members say they also want additional guidance on the transgender issue from state education officials, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and others.
"I think we're going to see this thing move, but not as fast as some of folks who attended the meeting last week want," said board member Larry Feinberg, founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, an advocacy group for public schools.
But for the HCAN activists, a group born of Election Day despair, their role in starting the transgender policy discussion was described by Armstrong as "really affirming."
"That we managed to get 50 people to show up for a school board meeting and six or seven to speak up," she said, "that makes a huge impact."