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Hempfield High School 

Hempfield School District’s school board voted 7-2 on Monday to add language in its athletic policy requiring athletes to play on the sports team corresponding with their biological sex, with “reasonable accommodations.”

Board member Dylan Bard proposed the motion in the middle of a lengthy discussion on whether transgender athletes should be able to participate on a sports team that aligns with their gender identity, which may not be the one assigned to them at birth. The board will work with the Independence Law Center — a Harrisburg-based law firm with a reputation for opposing LGBT rights in favor of religious liberty — and the district’s solicitor, Fox Rothschild, to create the policy.

Board members Jim Maurer and Mike Donato voted against the motion. During the meeting, Maurer was adamant that any policies deemed discriminatory in nature could cost the district its federal funding and result in legal repercussions.

“We’ve been advised that there’s a penalty if we were to proceed against (Title IX), and that we would lose our federal funds,” Maurer said. Title IX protects students from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. “We have also been advised not to be the first in Pennsylvania to take on this action.”

It’s a point Maurer has made clear since the conversation surrounding transgender athletes’ inclusion in the school’s interscholastic athletics policy began at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

The debate began when a high school sophomore competed on the girls track team in spring 2021, after coming out as transgender and running on the boys cross country team in fall 2020.

In June of 2021, the board hoped to adopt any policy changes by August 2021, in time for the start of the fall 2021 athletic season.

‘3,404 reasons’

After hearing 15 public comments, all regarding the athletic policy and transgender student-athletes, the administration presented six options to determine an athlete’s sports team designation.

The first option would determine participation based on gender identity, and the other four options would determine participation based on biological sex, or an individual’s sex at birth, with varying levels of exceptions.

“This is the continuum,” said board President Grant Keener. “Everything that we could possibly do falls somewhere between one which is the most permissive policy to five which is the most restrictive.”

Option five based participation on biological sex without any exceptions. The second offered an exception, as the PIAA will accept any gender indicated by a student’s principal. Option three deferred the decision to the individual sport’s national organization’s direction.

Option four allowed exceptions if medical evidence can prove with “a reasonable degree of certainty” that the individual’s participation on the team doesn’t interfere with the “competitive integrity of the sport.” A secondary consideration for option four would involve the school providing individual changing facilities for the student in question.

Bard’s motion didn’t fall into one of the pre-set options laid out for the board.

“Option five, if it’s bound to there is no option other than biological sex, is difficult because there’s always a scenario we might run into,” Bard said. “My motion would be to move forward with a sex-based distinction for sports where biological sex is the absolute distinction and have our attorneys create language that will ensure some common sense reasonable accommodations and that can be spelled out.”

Though the motion ultimately passed and board Vice President Pat Wagner was in favor of it, he urged the board to ensure they would be ready for the outcome of moving forward with a policy change regarding student gender.

“Obviously, this is a global discussion, right?” Wagner said. “This is something that has been in this boardroom for the last like 14-15 months, whatever it’s been. It’s got sizeability. It’s got scope. It’s got a ton of sensitivity.”

Right now, he said, the district already has a lot on its plate, including an investigation into a drag show hosted by the high school’s Gay Sexuality Alliance and onboarding a new athletics director along with two other administrative positions.

“Are we ready for this from public relations standpoint, from a legal standpoint, from medical situations that may arise?” Wagner said. “Are we ready for backlash, questions to the points that have already been brought up ... we’ve got to be prepared to handle an answer.”

Board member Charles Merris argued that the board has done enough analysis and discussion of the policy to be ready.

“I would say we are ready and I have as Mr. Garber said, we have 3,404 reasons to be ready,” Merris said, referencing a statement made by board member Richard Garber calling for the board to consider the 3,404 female athletes that he said could be negatively impacted by a transgender athlete joining the team.

Public comment

More than half of Hempfield residents who made a comment at the meeting felt that the competitiveness of female sports as well as the safety and privacy of female athletes could be negatively impacted by allowing transgender athletes to participate on a team aligning with their gender identity.

Katey Caddick, a 10th grade student at Hempfield High School, and her mother Pam Caddick expressed concerns for the safety and privacy of female athletes changing in a locker room with someone who was biologically a male at birth.

“I'm not trying to make this an uncomfortable environment with the members of the LGBTQ+ community,” Caddick said. “But we also have to consider the comfort and safety of girls that have a right to expect privacy in the locker room.”

Another six residents noted that June is LGBTQ Pride Month and asked the board members to protect the rights and safety of transgender students.

“As you consider policy decisions on trans kids in athletics,” said resident Maureen Eccleston, “I urge you to create policies that are inclusive and supportive of all our kids. As you know transgender youth already faced increased risk and bullying — nearly 35% of transgender youth have attempted suicide. Sports can be a positive experience, even an essential part of school for so many kids. So, let the kids play.”

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