Why we co-founded the Pennsylvanians for Welcoming and Inclusive Schools coalition

ACLU of Pennsylvania
3 min read6 days ago

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by Richard Ting and Alex Domingos

Schools should be a nurturing environment where students can express themselves, can engage in a free market of ideas and inquiry, and can trust that teachers and school administrators will always look out for their best interests.

But in recent years, we’ve seen a disturbing trend emerge across Pennsylvania as right-wing school boards adopt discriminatory policies targeting the most vulnerable students in their districts.

In Central Bucks School District, board members directed teachers to deadname transgender students, banned pride flags from classrooms, and retaliated against a teacher who helped a bullied student file a federal complaint. These actions led the ACLU of Pennsylvania to file not one, but two federal legal actions against the district.

In York County, Red Lion School District last year passed similar policies targeting transgender students, codifying a policy for deadnaming those students and forbidding them from playing on sports teams or using bathrooms that match their gender.

A number of schools across both York and Lancaster Counties are considering or actively working to pass similar policies.

In some of these districts, there’s a common thread to these discriminatory and often illegal proposals. That thread is the Independence Law Center (ILC), a right-wing law firm that offers legal consultation to school districts. ILC is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which has ties to the far-right Family Research Council. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Pennsylvania Family Institute and the Family Research Council as anti-LGBTQIA+ hate groups.

According to the Education Law Center, ILC is working with at least 15 school districts in Pennsylvania.

ILC policies are all about taking away freedom and choice from individual parents and handing that power over to a small group of right-wing parents and administrators. They also usurp the power of good school administrators and other support staff like guidance counselors and librarians.

What’s more, while ILC often touts that it offers its services to school districts free of charge, there are real costs associated with implementing the discriminatory policies that the law firm supports. When school districts impose discriminatory rules, that can and will often lead to expensive litigation, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

When school board members vote to contract with ILC, the outcome is dangerous for students, bad for schools, and costly for school districts.

That’s why the ACLU of Pennsylvania has joined a number of other legal and advocacy groups to form Pennsylvanians for Welcoming and Inclusive Schools (PAWInS), a coalition designed to reaffirm the mission of Pennsylvania schools as educational — not ideological — and to offer support and resources to students, parents, and teachers who are fighting back against ILC’s discriminatory policies.

We won’t stand by as right-wing school board members contract with a hate group to target the most vulnerable students to score political points.

If you are a student, parent, or teacher ready to push back against ILC policies in your school, consider joining the PAWInS coalition. If you’ve been the victim of a discriminatory policy at your school, you can report that incident to the coalition.

Together, we can make sure that students are safe and welcome to be their full selves at school.

Richard Ting is a senior staff attorney and Alex Domingos is an advocacy and policy strategist at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.