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Equity & Diversity

Parents Are Suing Schools Over Pronoun Policies. Here’s What You Need to Know

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 12, 2023 11 min read
Supporters of a bill to create a "parents' bill of rights" attend a rally outside the New Hampshire Statehouse on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Concord, N.H. The rally was held ahead of a public hearing on the bill in the House Education Committee.
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While the battle over transgender students’ rights at school is waged nationwide, a handful of parents continue to argue that by aiding in students’ social transitions, districts are violating parental rights.

Over the last three years, parents in at least six states have sued school districts over policies the districts say support transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary students.

The parents who have filed the lawsuits claim that their 14th Amendment rights to direct the upbringing of their children are violated when schools do not inform them of their children’s pronouns or names, or aid in their social transition at school in any other way.

None of the parents suing schools over this issue have won a legal argument against a school district yet. Two cases have been dismissed after judges ruled that the school districts did not violate any laws. In two other cases, parents have appealed the court’s decision and the final verdict is pending. The latest case was filed last month, and no further action has been taken so far.

Some parents have taken issue with the districts having a policy addressing transgender rights in the first place. Others ask that the school district be obligated to inform them if their child chooses to use a different name and pronouns at school, or questions their gender identity, even if the child has asked teachers or counselors not to reveal that information, according to the lawsuits.

In one Virginia case, parents were joined by teachers claiming that their religious freedoms under the state constitution were violated when they were required to use a student’s preferred name.

Legal experts supporting the school districts have argued that districts are trying to support students by having these policies in place, and are required to protect students’ privacy rights over parents’ rights to information about their children. So far, no school district that was sued has walked back its policies.

“This is like a reaction to a point in time where school communities everywhere are deciding in a democratic fashion that they have an obligation to support every single student, to meet every single student where they are, and to provide a safe and affirming and supportive learning environment, and that includes transgender students and gender nonconforming students,” said Chris Erchull, an attorney for GLAD, a legal organization that defends LGBTQ+ rights.

“To meet that obligation, schools must support students by, at the bare minimum, dignifying them when they say, ‘this is my name, and [these are] the pronouns that I want to use.’”

GLAD has filed amicus briefs in support of school districts’ transgender student policies, supporting lawsuit dismissals, in four of the six cases.

In at least one case, an attorney representing a plaintiff argued that the case isn’t about anything other than making sure parents are not left in the dark.

“The issue that’s almost relevant here is a parental rights issue. It’s not a transgender issue, or an issue about whether or not gender affirming care should be provided or not provided,” said Adam Shelton, an attorney for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Arizona, in a previous interview with Education Week. “It’s usually about whether or not parents should be involved with this sort of decision making process.”

However, these cases aren’t playing out independently of each other, but are rather part of a national effort to restrict the rights of transgender students, according to Erchull and other LGBTQ+ advocates. A small number of organizations are behind these lawsuits and other state policy pushes.

For example, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, has been involved in multiple pronoun lawsuits.

“What we’re seeing right now is an effort to single out one aspect of student identity development for its special scrutiny and special surveillance and special reporting requirements,” Erchull said.

“What we see as a theme that ties all this together, is that it’s about targeting transgender youth and preventing them from having access to the education that they need, to the health care they need, to everything else they need to be to thrive and to be successful as they as they grow into adults.”

Here’s a roundup of some pronoun-related cases in six states, and where they stand.

Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging transgender student policy in Wisconsin school district, appeal filed

In February 2020, a few parents anonymously sued the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, alleging that the school district’s transgender and nonbinary student policy violates parental rights by allowing students to use names and pronouns at school different from those they were assigned at birth, without providing parental notification absent a student’s consent.

This appeared to be the first lawsuit of its kind, soon followed by others across the country.

The district’s policy states that “students will be called by their affirmed name and pronouns regardless of parent/guardian permission to change their name and gender in MMSD systems.” However, to change their affirmed name and pronouns in the district-wide student system, students need the permission of one parent or legal guardian, according to the policy.

The parents who sued asked to keep their names entirely confidential, which was not permitted based on a decision by the appeals court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals to require the parents to disclose their identities to opposing attorneys, while allowing them to keep their names sealed and confidential from the public and the district.

The parents also sought a temporary injunction to make the district stop enforcing its transgender policy, which was denied.

“Whether a child with gender dysphoria should socially transition to a different gender identity is a significant and controversial healthcare decision that falls squarely within parental decision-making authority,” read the plaintiffs’ motion for the temporary injunction.

Last November, a judge dismissed the case, ruling that the sole remaining plaintiff after the request for anonymity was rejected did not have standing because the child’s hypothetical chances of changing their name and pronouns without informing the plaintiff were too remote to justify any judicial intervention, according to the judge’s opinion. The plaintiff has filed an appeal of that dismissal.

Maryland school district triumphs as judge rejects lawsuit on gender identity guidelines

In 2022, three parents anonymously filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court objecting to the Montgomery County, Md., district’s guidelines for student gender identity, saying it violated their constitutional rights as parents.

The parents said the guidelines were “expressly designed to circumvent parental involvement in a pivotal decision affecting” their children’s “care, health education, and future,” according to the lawsuit.

Last August, U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm ruled in favor of the district and threw out the lawsuit.

The Maryland decision marked the first ruling of its kind amid half a dozen similar lawsuits. In that case, the judge not only ruled in favor of the district, but also called its guidelines necessary and flexible.

However, a panel of conservative U.S. appeals court judges may revive the legal challenge, Reuters reported in March.

Court dismisses parents’ claims, but teachers’ lawsuit continues against Virginia school district

Six parents and teachers sued Harrisonburg City Public Schools last year over its gender identity policy, which requires teachers to ask students for their preferred names and pronouns and then use them.

The teachers alleged that the district violated their state constitutional rights by “compelling speech with which teachers strongly disagree—affirming HCPS’s message about sex and gender by using pronouns that do not correspond to a student’s biological sex,” according to the lawsuit. They also claimed that the district violated their free speech rights by forcing them to withhold “medical information” from parents.

The district asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, stating that the plaintiffs were unable to identify an instance in which they had to speak contrary to their beliefs or lie to parents, or were threatened with discipline by the school. The district’s attorney also maintained that best practices did not direct teachers to lie to parents, according to the Daily News-Record.

The district had passed the policy supporting transgender students in accordance with a model policy required by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. His Republican successor, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, introduced a model policy that rolls back many freedoms for transgender students, experts told Education Week last year.

A judge dismissed the parents’ part of the lawsuit, but not the teachers’ claims, according to the Harrisonburg Citizen. Teachers and staff will not face disciplinary measures if they do not use a student’s preferred name or pronoun or for sharing (or withholding) that information with parents, the judge’s opinion noted.

Judge affirms Massachusetts school district’s decision to not disclose student gender identities

Four parents last year filed the claim, but by the time the judge issued his decision, only two remained as plaintiffs, according to MassLive. The parents said they felt “hijacked” by the school when officials did not disclose conversations their children had had with teachers and school counselors about their gender identities. However, one child in question had asked in writing to not disclose this information to their parents, according to an amicus brief filed by GLAD in support of the school officials’ request to dismiss the case.

“Failure to respect student confidences has the perverse effect of incentivizing secrecy for those students who, for any number of reasons, are not ready to share something with their parents but would benefit from casual interactions with school staff as well as guidance or guidance and adjustment counseling,” the brief said.

In December 2022, a judge dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by two parents against the Ludlow Public Schools over keeping their children’s gender identities quiet in 2021.

U.S. District Judge Mark G. Mastroianni determined that school officials did not violate the parents’ civil rights when they supported two genderfluid Ludlow Public Schools students who sought to change their names and pronouns in their classrooms without informing their families.

New Hampshire Supreme Court hears arguments in appeal of parents’ lawsuit over notification policy

In April 2023, Judge Amy Messer dismissed a lawsuit filed by a mother against Manchester city schools over its policy that prevents officials from informing parents about their child’s social transition without the student’s permission.

The superior court judge determined that the protocol did not infringe on parents’ rights, and the district had a right to enact these kinds of policies to protect all students from discrimination, Messer wrote in her ruling dismissing the suit.

“While the defendants concede that the plaintiff has a fundamental right to raise her child as she wishes, they assert that the plaintiff’s right to parent does not include the ability to direct how the school teaches her child,” Messer wrote. “The court rejects the plaintiff’s argument that the policy violates her fundamental right to parent.”

Concord-based attorney Richard Lehmann, who is representing the Manchester mother in the lawsuit, said his client plans to appeal the decision, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Lehmann told the New Hampshire paper that the lower court took a narrow view of parental rights in its dismissal of the case.

“We believe that the court’s decision takes an unduly narrow view of the rights of parents to raise their children and fails to properly consider how those rights are infringed by Manchester’s policy of hiding a child’s in-school behavior from his or her parents,” Lehmann said to the New Hampshire Union Leader. “We look forward to bringing an appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court raising this and other issues that we think the court got wrong.”

In late April, the parent appealed the decision, and the state’s supreme court heard oral arguments.

Maine school district faces parent lawsuit for providing chest binder to student

Earlier this year, a Maine mom sued the Great Salt Bay Community School for allegedly violating her parental rights after a school counselor gave her child a chest binder, which is a garment worn to flatten breasts.

School counselors and staff were also using the student’s chosen name and pronouns without informing the parent, according to the lawsuit.

The district received three bomb threats because of the parent’s complaints at a school board meeting, according to communication sent by school and district leaders. It has continued to defend its transgender student policy.

This is the latest in a series of cases about transgender rights policies, however, in this case, the parent’s lawyers in this case said they’re solely focused on parental rights, and not on whether schools should support transgender students.

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