By Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
For the third year in a row, a same-sex couple with a student in the Bethel Park school district was disappointed to receive paperwork from their son’s school that asked for the name and contact information from a mother and a father rather than the gender neutral terms “parent or guardian.”
According to Mt. Lebanon resident and 1989 Bethel Park graduate Kristin Wessell, the gendered language on the forms came to her attention in August of 2017 when the aforementioned couple shared the forms to Facebook. One of the wives had to list her son’s mother and her wife as “father” on a parent teacher organization form.
“I didn’t want her to have to fight this battle on her own, so I emailed the superintendent,” says Wessell. She sent the first email on August 31, 2017, and she says that the superintendent’s assistant responded quickly that the forms would be updated.
But when her friends’ son moved to middle school in 2018, the same problem occurred, allegedly on four separate school contact forms. Once again, Wessell emailed the superintendent.
“I posted about it on my Facebook, and other friends with kids in the [Bethel Park] school district responded. Some indicated their forms listed ‘parent’ or ‘guardian’ while others noted they used ‘father’ and ‘mother.’ There wasn’t consistency between schools, and sometimes there wasn’t consistency between forms at the same school,” explains Wessell.
According to Wessell, the superintendent’s assistant apologized once more and promised to check all the forms the schools use, but on August 21, 2019, her friend posted about the “mother/father” phrasing on Facebook again. It was at this point that Wessell reached out to the Pittsburgh Current.
The use of “parent/guardian” is the standard in courts of law, and it’s the phrasing most common across districts. Using “mother/father” doesn’t just make forms exclusive for same-sex parents. It also excludes students who may be in the foster care system or are raised by grandparents or other extended family or friends.
Vicki Flotta is the director of public relations for Bethel Park School District. She says that several years ago, it was brought to the district’s attention that using “mother/father” on forms might be exclusive, so some changes were made.
“As a District, when we were first made aware of this, we immediately changed all of our forms online to “parent/guardian,” and removed any gender specific identifications. We asked our schools to replace their paper forms with the new ones,” says Flotta. “The forms that are posted online refer to “parent/guardian,” and not “mother/father,” and we believe all of our schools are now using the proper paper forms as well.”
That being said, parent and teacher volunteer groups like PTAs and PTOs are organizations that operate independently of the school districts and have their own bylaws and bank accounts. The holders of leadership positions change nearly annually, so Flotta posits that checking the verbiage on the forms might have fallen through the cracks.
“We did express to them when we made the changes to our forms that they should as well. I can’t speak for them, and I don’t want to make excuses for them either. They are volunteer organizations that work very hard to support our schools and students,” says Flotta.
Flotta says that in the upcoming monthly meetings with the PTO/PTA presidents that the district will re-emphasize the importance of using forms that use “parent/guardian” rather than “mother/father,” as well as try to establish a checks and balances processes where outgoing forms are reviewed annually by PTO Council Leadership before being distributed to parents and guardians.
Wessell says the language on forms is imperative, and she felt obligated to reach out to the district. “It’s important to me because I can see how it hurt my friends, and I can take action to support them. And I’m sure they aren’t the only same-sex parents in a district as large as Bethel Park,” says Wessell. “All families deserve to be recognized and respected.”
“Schools should be as welcoming as possible and should not make people feel excluded by something so easily changed. The simple use of “guardian” covers everything,” adds Wessell.
Flotta says that any occurence of “mother/father” on a form from the district was made in error.
“The schools are responsible for producing their own forms for their families. We have asked the Principals to make sure that the forms they are using are the correct ones. We sincerely apologize if any of the old forms were used,” says Flotta. “We continue to emphasize to our principals the importance of using the updated forms. The Bethel Park School District values all of our families and would never intentionally do anything to make anyone feel excluded or uncomfortable.”