Read the Bill: Is ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Coming to Pennsylvania?

Parents push for greater transparency in schools
Unsplash, Katherine McAdoo

Two bills seeking to limit the exposure of children to sexually explicit content and ideology are making their way through the Pennsylvania State Senate. One bill maximizes transparency between parents and schools with regard to sexually explicit content. The other seeks to provide parents with greater control over their child’s support services and health records.

As expected, political opponents have put their own spin on the legislation. Among these individuals is Governor Tom Wolf, who recently claimed the bills would ‘[bring] “Don’t Say Gay” to Pennsylvania.’

Just as Democrats were when they called Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Governor Wolf and those who agree with him are claiming that the two pieces of legislation prevent students from talking about sexuality and gender identity at school. Before this false claim can be addressed, the actual content of the bills must be further explained.

Deemed an act to institute “Parental Control of Student Exposure to Sexually Explicit Content in Schools” by its authors, SB 1277 requires schools to notify parents of any sexually explicit content being taught to their children prior to exposure. Additionally, the bill insists that parents and legal guardians be allowed to review any materials containing sexually explicit content. After review, Pennsylvania schools would be required to provide particular students with related, non-explicit materials and academic activities if requested by their parents.

These rules also apply to the school library. The bill requires the adoption of policies allowing parents to intercept sexually explicit library books before their child attempts to view them.

The “Empowering Families in Education” Act, otherwise known as SB 1278, takes a different approach to the issue. Under its legislative agenda, it requires parents to be made aware of any change in their student’s support services as it relates to their mental, emotional, or physical health. Schools must allow parents and legal guardians to make decisions about their children’s education in this area. 

As for Governor Wolf, the text of SB 1278 easily debunks his false claim. While it clearly states that administrators cannot make policies that go behind parents’ backs on the subject or that encourage children to withhold information from them, the bill makes an exception in cases where there is good evidence that disclosing the information would lead to abuse or neglect of the child.

In congruence with that exception, the bill’s text debunks Wolf’s claim once again, stating that “First amendment speech protections for students and public employees applicable to religious speech shall be applied identically to protections for speech regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.” In other words, the bill doesn’t prevent students from initiating conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity.

With that settled, there are still more significant details of the bill to examine. For instance, schools absolutely cannot institute policies that circumvent full parental transparency with regard to their child’s health and academic records. These rules do, in fact, largely relate to cases involving subjects like sexual orientation and gender identity. As it pertains to the classroom, the bill requires schools to be neutral with regard to their views on those subjects. While they can still teach them in limited capacities, teachers may not endorse or push a certain view on them.

Furthermore, SB 1278 lays out a few specific ground rules surrounding the teaching of material involving sexual orientation or gender identity. Notably, schools are not to teach about the issues at all before the sixth grade. Sexually explicit content in grades 6-12, even then, is only allowed to be taught in an age-appropriate manner in following Pennsylvania state standards.

Through their parents, students can also sue for damages if schools violate the requirements laid out in both pieces of legislation. Since passing the education committee on June 21, both bills have been re-referred to appropriations following their introduction into the full Pennsylvania Senate.

Samuel Bravo
Samuel Bravo is an undergrad student at Webster University's School of Communications in St. Louis with a focus on journalism and media studies. He is an aspiring reporter and a writer for Chalkboard Review.

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