Law & Courts

California Sues to Stop District From Disclosing Trans Students’ Name Changes or Pronouns

By Mark Walsh — August 28, 2023 5 min read
California Attorney General Rob Bonta fields questions during a press conference on Aug. 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. California's attorney general sued a Southern California school district Monday over its recently adopted policy that requires schools to notify parents if their children change their gender identification or pronouns.
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California’s attorney general on Monday sued a school district over its policy that requires principals, teachers, or counselors to notify parents when students change their gender identity or pronouns.

The suit filed by Rob Bonta, a Democrat, asks a state court to declare the policy of the 26,000-student Chino Valley Unified school district east of Los Angeles to be in violation of the California Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, privacy, and the fundamental right to education.

“Every student has the right to learn and thrive in a school environment that promotes safety, privacy, and inclusivity—regardless of their gender identity,” Bonta said in a statement. “The forced outing policy wrongfully endangers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of non-conforming students who lack an accepting environment in the classroom and at home.”

The California dispute is the latest flash point over transgender students in schools—an issue that has brought widespread policymaking and legislation in conservative-leaning states and school districts to restrict teaching about sexuality and gender identity, as well as policies such as which restrooms trans students can use and which sports teams they can play on.

The Chino Valley school board voted 4-1 on July 23 to adopt the policy after a public hearing in which numerous LGBTQ+ students testified against it, as did California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. The lawsuit cites alleged “animus” by board members who voted for the policy, including statements that transgender identity was “an illusion” and a sign of mental illness.

The policy requires a school principal, teachers and other certified staff members, or school counselors to notify parents or guardians “in writing, within three days” whenever “any district employee, administrator, or certificated staff, becomes aware” that a student request to be identified or treated as a gender “other than the student’s biological sex or gender listed on the student’s birth certificate or any other official records.”

The policy also requires such notifications when trans students seek to join sex-segregated athletic teams and competitions or use bathrooms or changing facilities that align with their gender identity.

The lawsuit says an investigation by the attorney general’s office determined that at least one school in the Chino Valley district offered training in advance of the Aug. 7 start of the 2023-24 school year that said principals would arrange a meeting with a student seeking a change in gender identity, as well as the student’s parents.

“The principal would ‘call the child out of class,’ inform the student of ‘what was going to happen,’ and attempt to persuade the student to ‘walk it back’—i.e., to disclaim their gender identity—before the meeting,” the suit says.

During the same training, the suit says, “the principal informed teachers that if they did not report a student’s name, gender, or bathroom request to the school administration, it will be ‘an HR issue.’ ”

The suit cites evidence that the policy is causing harm to transgender students and creating “an environment of fear.”

The Chino Valley district did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the district and its lawyers were reviewing the suit.

Bill Essayli, a Republican member of the California state Assembly from Riverside, which is near Chino, said in a statement that Bonta’s lawsuit “declared war on parents.”

“The fact that he is spending taxpayer resources on suing school districts for providing information to parents is remarkable and inconsistent with a century of [U.S.] Supreme Court precedent holding that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children without government interference,” said Essayli, who sponsored state legislation similar to the Chino Valley policy. His legislation did not succeed in the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature.

A handful of other California districts have adopted similar policies, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is supporting an effort to introduce state legislation that would bar school boards from adopting such policies, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Research shows that transgender adolescents feel less safe at school, have higher rates of suicide ideation, and are disproportionately represented among homeless youth, at least partly due to rejection at home. Research also shows that accepting and affirming transgender students can improve their mental health and academic performance.

Some states taking the opposite viewpoint on transgender students

California’s dispute over transgender students represents the inverse of what is happening in several conservative-led states.

In Florida, under rules adopted by the state board of education in July and supported by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, teachers don’t have to use pronouns that align with transgender students’ gender identity, and such students must use restrooms that align with their gender assigned at birth.

In Virginia, the state education department in July issued model guidance that makes it harder for transgender students to change their names or pronouns in school, and calls for them to use restrooms aligning with their gender assigned at birth. Those policies were issued at the direction of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Some school districts, particularly in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., are resisting the state guidelines.

The legal terrain, too, is still largely undecided. Parents in at least a half-dozen states have sued either in state or federal court alleging that districts allowed or encouraged students to assume new names or identities without their knowledge.

In Maryland, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit brought by three parents who challenged the Montgomery County school district’s policy for responding when a student discloses they are trans. The policy calls for school personnel to respect students’ gender identities and pronouns, protect their privacy in terms of disclosing their pronouns and identities to other students and their families, and support them if the student doesn’t feel safe at home. But it also directs school personnel to use a student’s legal name and pronouns aligned with their assigned sex at birth until the student or their guardian specifies otherwise.

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