By Michael Yoder
The Hempfield School Board last week approved a policy restricting student athletes in the district to participate with sports teams that are the same as their birth sex, effectively keeping male students identifying as transgender from playing on female teams.
With a 6-2 vote in favor, the policy immediately took effect in the district on July 12. School Board President Grant Keener, along with board members Dylan Bard, Richard Garber, Linda Johnston, Justin Wogelmuth and Charles Merris voted to approve the policy. Board members Mike Donato and Jim Maurer voted against it, while Board Vice President Pat Wagner was absent from the meeting.
Policy 123.1, which education law experts said may be the first of its kind to be approved by a Pennsylvania school board, could see challenges in court as activists expressed outrage on social media at the rule’s passage.
Mauer was the lone school board member to speak about the policy before the vote, saying he thanked the public for speaking out in opposition to the policy and that he will “continue to openly oppose this policy.”
“I will not accept the board’s vote regarding this policy,” Maurer said. “This policy invalidates gender identity and contradicts our mission statement that we just went through.”
Maurer said the trans athlete policy could open the district to lawsuits and impact its federal funding through Title IX, the federal policy in place since 1972 meant to protect students from sex-based discrimination in programs receiving federal dollars.
“I believe we continue to be at risk financially, and as the chair of the Finance Committee, we need to be responsible for fiscal responsibility in this school district,” Maurer said. “I believe we’re at risk for further lawsuits in the future, which will take away dollars that should be available for educational needs of our students.”
Policy 123.1, which was developed with the Independence Law Center, a Harrisburg-based First Amendment law firm defending religious liberty, is designed to maintain fair competition between boys and girls sports.
The board voted nearly a year ago to solicit the pro-bono work from the law firm after a male student wanted to join the Hempfield girls track team in the spring of 2021.
“Separate athletic teams on the basis of sex preserve fairness, provide increased opportunity for girls, and are safer,” the policy says. “As such, the district provides separate interscholastic athletic teams on the basis of sex.”
The policy specifically states that the district’s athletic teams or sports designated for “females,” “women,” or “girls” “shall not be open to students of the male sex.” The policy is the same for female students attempting to join a team designated for “males,” “men,” or “boys.”
The policy also includes a section on “reasonable accommodations” for females trying out for teams designated for males when there’s no similar female team for that sport during the school year.
It also allows for male students who have not yet started puberty to play on teams designated for females during that season. Any male student seeking to play on a female team must provide a doctor’s note to the athletic director certifying they have not started puberty.
Impact on State Policy
In June, the Pennsylvania state House and Senate passed a bill that would require public schools and colleges in the commonwealth to designate participation in sports programs to the biological sex of athletes, barring trans athletes from participating in the sport with the sex they identify as.
Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the bill, criticizing its language on social media. Wolf posted a tweet on June 8 with the saying, “Leave trans kids alone.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania spoke out against Hempfield’s policy after the vote. Naiymah Sanchez, the group’s trans rights organizer, attended the meeting and said the ACLU will work with students wishing to file a complaint against the school district.
In her statement, Sanchez said trans students wishing to participate in athletic programs are doing it for the same reason other students participate, to “challenge themselves, improve fitness and be part of a team.” She said the opportunity for all students to participate in sports can lead to better schoolwork, greater career aspirations and increased self-esteem.
“The foremost job of schools is to create a welcoming and supportive environment that gives every child the opportunity to learn and grow to their full potential,” Sanchez said in the ACLU statement. “What the Hempfield School Board did tonight is an attack on the very children whom the board is charged with protecting and supporting. This discrimination is dangerous and cruel; the ACLU of Pennsylvania is ready to fight this policy if it is implemented.”
The Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit legal advocacy group, also issued a letter to the Hempfield School Board, saying the new policy discriminates against transgender students.
Kristina Moon, senior attorney for the Education Law Center, penned the open letter, citing several instances in which the Education Law Center believes the policy is discriminatory.
“As numerous courts have recognized, a school’s policy or actions that treat gay, lesbian, non-binary or transgender students differently from other students can cause serious harm,” the open letter said. “Federal courts have found against school districts where students experience ‘emotional damage, stigmatization and shame’ as a result of being subjected to differential treatment and have struck policies that cause ‘substantial and immediate adverse effects on the daily life and well-being’ of transgender students.”
For several months, dozens of LGBTQ activists have demonstrated outside the Hempfield School District administrative offices during school board meetings, holding and waving rainbow and trans flags to passersby.
On Tuesday, July 12, at least one Christian activist showed up with a microphone, speaking to the LGBTQ activists. The man was forced into the roadway several times by the activists who surrounded and yelled at him, attempting to drown out his voice.
Inside the meeting, several parents and students spoke for and against the policy.
Richard Boyer, a parent in the district, said in the policy discussion that has lasted for almost a year, the board has been routinely threatened by a “handful of Marxist-inspired residents” inspired by letters from the Education Law Center. He said while transgender people are “deserving of love, acceptance and affection,” forcing people to accept lifestyles they do not agree with leads to unfair labels and a control of language.
Boyer thanked the board for putting the policy up for a vote as a way of “preserving the equality and integrity for girls sports.” He also admonished the LGBTQ activists outside of the meeting, saying most of them didn’t have ties to the school district and “actively harassed one individual who appeared to be religious with a megaphone.”
“Policy 123 does not discriminate or violate individual rights — it protects them,” Boyer said. “For many of you, equal treatment feels like discrimination, because you expect to receive special treatment. This sense of entitlement for special treatment feeds directly into the current culture war, which many want to blindly ignore or want to pretend isn’t present. And this culture war is going to get worse — a lot worse.”
Hempfield student Ollie Wenditz, a rising eighth grade girl who identifies as a boy, spoke out against the policy and said she had hoped to participate on the boys basketball team in the future. She said trying out for the girls basketball team “would make me feel uncomfortable and not true to myself.”
“In a room full of 200 students, maybe one of them will be transgender,” she said. “I am one of those very few trans people in the district. Your decision tonight will affect me directly.”
Ollie’s mother, Lynn Wenditz, said she was emotional about the prospects of the policy vote. She said she does her best to shield Ollie from “awful, vile, disgusting” comments made by Hempfield residents about trans students.
“He hears these decisions you guys are making, these things we’re saying about him and everybody like him,” Wenditz said, referring to her daughter using male pronouns. “And that tells him that he’s not good enough, that there’s something wrong with him. That he’s lacking in some way. And he’s not. He’s an amazing child. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s kind. He’s loving. And he just wants to be treated like any other student in the school district.”
Staff writer Michael Yoder can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @YoderReports on Twitter.