Bills to require inclusive practices in all schools advance in Council

They would require all youth-serving organizations, including charter schools, to have welcoming policies for transgender and nonbinary youth.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

After a brief hearing featuring the passionate testimony of a self-described “non-binary tween,” four bills intended to protect transgender and non-binary youth were approved by a City Council committee Wednesday, paving the way for a full Council vote on them as early as next week.

“Sometimes, people tell me how hard it is for them to use they/them pronouns. I don’t need to hear that it is hard!” cried Itzela Wiley as Council members listened. “I don’t expect people to be perfect; I only ask for people to try.”

Later, Wiley, 10, a student in the Philadelphia School District who identifies as non-binary, told Council that being “mis-gendered” was “hurtful” and “painful,” said they were glad to have spoken out on behalf of other students like themselves.

“If you’re going to do something that involves the youth, the youth should be heard,” Wiley said.

City Council member Helen Gym, who had introduced the bills, celebrated their unanimous passage out of the Law and Government Committee. “Too often, trans and gender-nonconforming Philadelphians are forced to navigate unsafe spaces where their dignity is not realized,” Gym said.

If the bills are approved by the full Council, city officials will then follow up with specific regulations, according to Gym’s staff.

The package of four bills updates and clarifies the City of Philadelphia’s longstanding protections for LGTBQ residents, which have included protections against discrimination based on gender identity since 2002. The package expands the definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation to include transgender and nonbinary identities and requires staff training and policy updates at all youth-serving institutions.

The package also requires identity-appropriate bathroom access for all institutions serving youth.

Council members Curtis Jones, Bill Greenlee and Helen Gym listen to testimony at Wednesday’s hearing bills on inclusive policies in youth-serving organizations.

The package explicitly extends these protections to charter school students, who were not covered by the School District of Philadelphia’s own package of gender-discrimination policies, known as Policy 252. Under that policy, the District is required to provide transgender students in District-run schools with “a supportive and nondiscriminatory environment,” said Rue Landau of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, testifying in support of the package of bills.

The proposed bills would expand that guarantee to “cover all public programs servicing youth throughout our city,” including charter schools, “so they have essential uniform guidelines that establish best practices and training,” Landau said.

Co-sponsors of one or more of the bills include Council members Mark Squilla, Bill Greenlee, Derek Green, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Curtis Jones, and Bobby Henon.

Improving inclusivity

Wiley, the only student to speak in Wednesday’s hearing, told Council that improving inclusivity isn’t hard, but that adults need training and support to learn how to do it.

Teachers might not realize that saying “good morning, boys and girls” is less inclusive than saying “good morning, children,” and it’s not easy for kids to correct them, said Wiley.

“When I was at some camps this summer, it was often up to me and my parents to teach counselors and staff about what pronouns to use or not to split kids up in groups by gender,” Wiley said. “That’s a lot of pressure for a 10-year-old!”

But Wiley also said the effort was worth it. “This fall, when the Wissahickon Environmental Center was planning to advertise new programs, they thought about what I taught them,” Wiley said. “They reached out to my mom for advice. I’m happy to report their flyers … now say: ‘Children ages 5-10, all genders and abilities welcome.’”

The proposed Council bills would take pressure off students by requiring staff to get professionally trained, Wiley said. “I hope that this change will make other children like me feel seen and welcome,” said Wiley.

Bathroom access

Mayor Kenney’s administration signaled strong support for the package, including its bathroom-access requirements for city-controlled buildings.

“Access to gender-neutral bathrooms is an issue of public health, safety, equity, and justice,” said Evan Thornburgh of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. “The passage of this bill will demonstrate the city’s continued commitment to, and recognition of, all gender identities.”

Other testimony at the approximately 90-minute hearing in the bills’ favor came from representatives of the ACLU, the Education Law Center, the William Way LBGTQ Community Center, and the Juvenile Law Center.

No one testified against the bills, nor did any District or charter school representatives appear to discuss their implications for schools. District officials did not have an immediate comment on the bills. The Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s leading charter school advocates, declined to comment on them.

Charter school supporters have voiced concerns in the past, however. When Gym first unveiled the bills in June, David P. Hardy of Excellent Schools PA called the effort “a ruse” designed to heap new obligations on charter schools. “This is Helen Gym finding another regulation to place on charters,” he told WHYY News.

Hardy did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

Gym said that these bills aren’t a response to specific complaints about issues at particular schools, District or charter. Rather, they’re an attempt to head off potential problems by making sure that city and District policies are as clear as possible. Little problems that aren’t being reported can still be harmful or even traumatic, she said, which can mean big problems later.

“Abusive, neglectful, or harmful behaviors can become normative when we don’t address them,” said Gym.

And with transgender rights now being explicitly challenged by the Trump administration as the Supreme Court prepares to consider a group of employment-discrimination cases, supporters of Council’s bill package said that Philadelphia has a duty to stand in the vanguard of civil rights.

“It is more important than ever to say that our city is … a place of sanctuary,” said Chris Bartlett of the William Way Center. “Council’s support for these bills will send a powerful message of hope.”