A Republican school board candidate in Pine-Richland School District is drawing criticism for his involvement in advocating for a short-lived policy requiring students to use bathrooms matching their “biological sex.”
In 2016, attorney Mike Wiethorn — now a candidate for Pine-Richland School Board in District 3 — fomented a wave of public backlash against transgender students being allowed to use bathrooms matching their gender identity at Pine-Richland High School. The school board ultimately passed a policy directing students to use bathrooms designated for their "biological sex."
Now, district parents are revisiting this episode as Wiethorn campaigns for a seat on the school board where he once pushed for policies they view as discriminatory.
Wiethorn first raised his objections to trans students using the bathrooms of their choice during a March 7, 2016 school board meeting.
“The current practice at the high school is to allow transgender students to use any restroom at the high school… at any time, without any restriction,” Wiethorn said to the school board, expressing his concern that the practice was “implemented without any communication to the parents of the students in the district.”
Wiethorn also spoke dismissively of transgender students, referring to trans girls as individuals “who believe themselves to be girls,” and alleged that allowing trans girls in girls’ restrooms violated the privacy rights of cisgender girls.
Meeting minutes show that, in the subsequent weeks, Wiethorn drafted a letter reiterating his position on the issue and distributed it to other parents, who themselves submitted identical letters to the board.
In September 2016, the school board passed a resolution requiring students to use either restrooms matching their biological sex or single-occupancy “unisex” restrooms.
Trans students at Pine-Richland High School filed a successful federal lawsuit against the policy change in 2017, arguing it discriminated against them. After a federal court granted their request for an injunction to bar the district from enforcing the policy until the lawsuit was concluded, the district settled, rescinding the policy and including gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies.
In a declaration filed by the defendants in the lawsuit, Wiethorn says that in July 2016, it became “apparent the School District was not going to implement policies prior to the commencement of the academic school year which would guarantee that my daughter's fundamental right to privacy would be protected by the School District,” so he and his wife decided to enroll their daughter in Catholic school.
Wiethorn’s campaign materials do not mention his involvement in advocating for the policy banning transgender students from certain bathrooms or participation in the lawsuit defending it. PR Kids First, a group backing Republican school board candidates including Wiethorn, writes in a Facebook post that he “is running for school board to ensure that parents remain involved, informed, and in control of their children’s education.”
Some district parents are hoping to call attention to Wiethorn’s record regarding trans students and question his focus on so-called “parents’ rights.”
Nila Griffin, the parent of a trans student in the Pine-Richland District, tells City Paper that she is wary of Wiethorn’s run for school board, because “the safety of trans students is a huge concern” for her. Griffin says her daughter, who is trans, “already receives harassment” in her 5th-grade class.
“As the trend of attempting to erase trans people continues across legislatures, it emboldens these parents to speak hatefully at home, and then their children parrot that in the classroom,” Griffin says. “We already have board members that have posted and said horribly transphobic things. We don’t need any more. My daughter deserves to be fairly treated and represented like all children. The focus should be on education, not where my daughter is going to the bathroom.”
One of Wiethorn’s opponents in the school board race, district parent Jennifer Beuse, agrees.
“I am deeply concerned that Mr. Weithorn, whose actions have cost the district considerable time and money, as well as caused significant direct harm, is running for school director,” she tells City Paper. “Children learn best in a welcoming and safe learning environment for all children, including those in the LGBTQIA+ community. I believe the students who are transgender and their parents when they say inclusive policies are necessary for their safety in protecting them from homelessness, sexual and physical violence, and suicide attempts.”
Together for PR, a group backing inclusion-focused school board candidates including Beuse, argues that “parents’ rights” are a distraction from “the real problems affecting our kids,” encouraging voters to “be wary of parents wanting to restrict what ALL of our children can read and learn — and of school directors who encourage them.”
Sue Kerr, who first reported Wiethorn’s involvement in the 2016 bathroom ban on her blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, tells City Paper she is concerned that there are many candidates like Wiethorn running for school board across Pennsylvania’s more than 500 school districts.
“We need reasonable people across the Commonwealth to pay close attention to their school board races and send up their own flares if they see the rhetoric of ‘parent's rights’ or other terms that hide an agenda that uses bans to deny children a good education. … A trans or gender nonconforming student's education should not be interrupted to soothe a parent whose discomfort is based solely on the student's identity and fueled by false narratives,” she says.
Wiethorn did not respond to multiple requests for comment.