Laurel school board limits girls sports at its facilities to athletes with ‘XX chromosomes’

Wednesday, September 20, 2023 | 7:03 PM

Citing concerns over safety and fairness, one WPIAL school district has adopted a gender policy that limits girls sports to biological females.

The school board at Laurel unanimously approved the new policy, which bases gender on a student’s chromosomes. The rule applies to any sports contest hosted at Laurel’s facilities, said superintendent Len Rich, and visiting teams are expected to comply.

Rich said the current PIAA policy on transgender athletes is flawed since it asks high school principals to determine a student’s gender.

“The Laurel School District believes that biological males have a competitive advantage over biological females,” Rich said. “And we believe biological males who are playing in the girls division present a risk to the health, safety and welfare of biological females. Our girls didn’t sign up for that risk.”

The PIAA didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

A debate about transgender athletes in Pennsylvania high school sports has grown in recent months, since a transgender girl medaled in the PIAA track and field championships in May.

The current PIAA policy consists of one sentence in the bylaws: “Where a student’s gender is questioned or uncertain, the decision of the principal as to the student’s gender will be accepted by PIAA.”

Rich said he questions the PIAA’s logic.

“None of the principals I know have medical degrees, so I don’t know what we’re doing,” he said.

The PIAA Girls Athletics Steering Committee and the PIAA Committee on Gender & Minority Equity discussed the current PIAA transgender policy earlier this summer, but neither group recommended making any changes.

A survey of state high school athletic associations conducted by the PIAA staff found no national consensus for gender policy, but some states do rely on medical experts or biological metrics.

“The PIAA has left 500 school districts hanging,” Rich said. “You’re going to leave eligibility and gender up to the interpretation of high school principals? What medical training and expertise do they have to do that? It creates nothing but consistent inconsistency.”

Laurel’s policy was approved Sept. 13 with a 9-0 vote of the school board. The Lawrence County school now defines a female as “an individual with XX chromosomes. Further, ‘females’ have a biological system designed to produce an ova.”

The two-page school district resolution says Laurel “shall not entertain, permit or otherwise allow or recognize an opponent who competes against a Laurel female athletic program hosted at a Laurel facility and has an athlete on their roster who does not have XX chromosomes.”

However, girls can continue to compete on boys teams. The Laurel football team has a female kicker, for example.

Rich said Laurel’s policy was based in part on one approved by a school district in Nebraska.

Earlier this year, the PIAA survey of high school athletic associations found that a dozen states relied on the judgment of school administrators to assign gender, while 20 other associations made the determination themselves through various methods that rely on medical records and input from doctors.

Twelve states used the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate. Two states simply accepted a student’s self-expressed gender, while five associations had not formulated a transgender policy. The PIAA surveyed athletic associations for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Imposing the new restrictions on Laurel athletes isn’t an issue, since the PIAA policy gives each school a choice, but asking opponents to comply could be tricky.

“If and when that ever comes, we’ll have a decision to make,” Rich said. “In a very flippant manner, some of our critics have said, ‘What are you going to do? Do they have to have a chromosome test? Are you going to ask to see their genitals?’ We’re not going down that road.

“I think it’s fair to say that if we see something questionable, we can ask the opposition if that’s a biological male on a female team. Depending on what they say, we could either have the contest under protest or we could forfeit the contest. But what we’re asking is that when you come into our house, you respect our rules.”

Rich is a former member of the WPIAL board of directors and has led the way on other hot-button topics, including an effort in 2019 to divide public and private schools into separate playoffs.

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if this policy faced a legal challenge.

“I’ve always believed it’s worth it to stand up for your principles,” he said. “I’ll go down swinging, but I won’t go down without a fight, whether it’s public vs. private or gender eligibility. But I’m happy to have civil conversations with those who might have a difference of opinion.”

Under the policy, Laurel athletes would continue to compete against transgender opponents in contests not held on Laurel’s campus. That could include WPIAL and PIAA championships.

Despite concerns about safety, Rich said the district wouldn’t take away a student’s opportunity to compete for district or state medals.

“If you want to say there are inconsistencies in that, I can see your point,” Rich said. “But that’s the position PIAA and the WPIAL have put us in.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .


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