DeVos visit to Harrisburg school with anti-trans policy sparks calls for statewide nondiscrimination protections

DeVos visit to Harrisburg school with anti-trans policy sparks calls for statewide nondiscrimination protections

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United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos attended a roundtable Thursday morning at a Harrisburg elementary school that adheres to an anti-trans student policy. 

Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, offers specific guidelines regarding students experiencing “gender identity questions.” The policy, instated January 2015, indicates that it applies to student cases in which “the gender identity question is psychological in origin.”

“This policy addresses the circumstances where there is a clear biological determination of a person’s sex and subsequent efforts to chemically and/or surgically alter the given biology,” the rules, available on the Diocese’s website, outline. “This is understood in Catholic moral terms as self-mutilation and therefore immoral. To attempt to make accommodations for such persons would be to cooperate in the immoral action and impose an unacceptable burden on others in the school community.”

The event DeVos attended was hosted by Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference in collaboration with the Diocese of Harrisburg. Dubbed an “Education Freedom roundtable” by the U.S. Department of Education, the discussion lobbied for the expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which provides tax credits to corporations that provide low- and middle-income families scholarships for accessing private school and prekindergarten.

Launched in 2001, the initiative awarded 37,725 scholarships from 2017-18, with an average value of $1,816. In June, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed House Bill 800, which would have nearly doubled the annual funding for the tax credit program by fueling it with $100 million in additional support. 

“Education is the cornerstone of democracy, and it is my job as the leader of this commonwealth to ensure fairness and accountability in our classrooms. House Bill 800 would pour funding into a program that lacks these two critical aspects,” Wolf said in a statement at the time. “We have an accountable public education system in place that is underfunded. I have and I will continue to fight to fully fund Pennsylvania’s public schools.”

Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of statewide LGBTQ youth advocacy organization Pennsylvania Youth Congress, told PGN the tax credit program is especially problematic because no statute exists barring state funding from benefitting institutions that openly discriminate against LGBTQ people. 

“We’re talking about the actions of our local and state government and their engagement with private institutions that discriminate,” Goodman told PGN. ”Private schools should run themselves how they see fit, but once they accept public funding, once that state government support attaches to their institutions, then we have to ensure their basic protections and public policy standards, which include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

According to a 2017 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, an organization seeking to end LGBTQ discrimination in education, 70 percent of queer Pennsylvania students experienced harassment from their peers based on sexual orientation and 58 percent encountered similar treatment because of their gender identity. Thirty-six percent of LGBTQ students indicated they routinely heard school staff making negative comments about a student’s gender identity.

In response to Thursday's discussion, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress will hold its second Pennsylvania Trans Student Roundtable in late October, allowing trans youth leaders from across the state to discuss making schools safer for LGBTQ students. 

The organization held a similar event in 2017 in the days following DeVos’ decision to rescind Obama-era Title IX guidelines that protected trans and nonbinary students from experiencing discrimination at school. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, an out trans woman, attended the inaugural roundtable. This year, Goodman said he hopes his organization will again be joined by Levine, alongside Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera. 

“There's nothing barring immediate harm to LGBT students and that has to be addressed,” Goodman said about the tax credit program. “That’s something that would be addressed with a statewide nondiscrimination law.”

The U.S. Department of Education and Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg did not return requests for comment. 

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