The Debate Over Gender Identity And Sexual Orientation Discussions In PA Classrooms

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Last month, legislation that bars conversations on the topics of sexuality and gender identity in the classroom passed the State Senate. 

Opponents call it the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” Similar legislation was signed into law earlier this year in Florida.

“This bill is more restrictive than Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill,” said Sharon Ward, Senior Policy Director for the Education Law Center.

“I know people like to use the tagline that this is the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill.’ Well, I have news for you, as a parent of an elementary school student, don’t say straight either. I don’t want anyone talking about sexuality with my young child before I start these conversations at home,” said State Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster).

Martin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1278. The bill would ban conversations regarding sexuality and gender identity until sixth grade, which marks the beginning of sexual education in Pennsylvania.

“That actually lines up with the state standards in Pennsylvania when the basics of sexual education start in sixth grade,” said Martin.

Ward believes the bill goes too far. She says it would prohibit basic classroom dialogue, especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“Certainly, there are age-appropriate conversations that can be had. But again, this is simply preventing people not from talking about human development, but talking about what they did at Thanksgiving dinner,” said Ward.

She worries it will create an environment where people are afraid to speak in their own classroom, especially teachers, who Ward says can face punishment for violation.

“This law would subject a teacher to a lawsuit if they violate it,” said Ward. “It would also subject a teacher or a counselor to a lawsuit if a student comes to them for help with a mental health crisis and they don’t report it to the parents. We all understand that parents want to talk to their kids, but you don’t want to threaten teachers to have children talk to their parents and you also don’t want to take away the person that a child might go to first if they’re experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Ward.

“If something’s happening with their child that they’re struggling with, the parents should know about it,” said Martin. “This bill does not prohibit organic discussion, meaning that if a kid brings up concerns to a teacher or kids are talking about it. What this stops is teachers from leading the discussion on a curriculum on whatever the topic related to sexuality is, for pre-kindergarten or through fifth grade,” Martin added.

Martin says there needs to be more parental transparency in the classroom, especially after hearing the stories of parents who’ve recently had a closer eye on what their children are learning or hearing.

“I think the pandemic, and a lot of kids being at home and being online, is what really opened up a lot of parents’ eyes to what potentially they were learning in the classroom or what was being discussed,” said Martin.

The bill currently sits in the House Education Committee for consideration.


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