Law & Courts

Guidelines Supporting Trans Students Don’t Violate Parents’ Rights, A Federal Judge Rules

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 31, 2022 5 min read
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A federal judge ruled that a Maryland school district’s policy outlining how staff should respond when students disclose that they are transgender, gender nonconforming, or non-binary does not violate parents’ federal or constitutional rights.

Earlier this year, three parents anonymously filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Southern Division, objecting to the Montgomery County, Md., district’s guidelines for student gender identity, saying it violated their constitutional rights as parents.

But on Aug. 18, Judge Paul Grimm ruled in favor of the district and threw out the lawsuit; in his opinion, he validated both the need for the guidelines and the way they are framed.

In the past few months, parents across the country have filed at least half a dozen lawsuits challenging school district guidelines or gender support plans. These guidelines generally permit students to change their pronouns, gender presentation, or names if they’re trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary and prohibit school staff from revealing students’ identities to parents without the students’ consent.

The Maryland decision marks the first ruling of its kind—and the judge not only ruled in favor of Montgomery County’s policy, but also called it necessary and flexible.

“This is an incredibly powerful and persuasive decision that will be put before other courts that have that type of case before them,” said Paul Castillo, senior counsel and students’ rights strategist for Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization focusing on defending the rights of LGBTQ people.

“It’s not only going to influence future decisions by courts, it’s also going to provide some affirmation for school districts that these are important and appropriately tailored [guidelines] for the school environment that strike the right balance with respect to ensuring a student’s privacy and ensuring that they feel safe and supported.”

Lambda Legal, along with two other organizations, filed an amicus brief supporting the school district’s bid to dismiss the case.

Why the judge’s ruling matters

In the lawsuit against Montgomery County schools, three parents filed complaints anonymously alleging that the district’s policy was “expressly designed to circumvent parental involvement in a pivotal decision affecting” their children’s “care, health education, and future,” according to the lawsuit. The parents contended the district’s policy advises school personnel to evaluate minor children about sexual matters, allow them to transition to a different gender identity at school without parental notice or consent, and requires school staff to enable this transition.

The parents also alleged that the guidelines “instruct schools to withhold information from parents regarding their children’s gender identity as expressed at school,” according to the lawsuit. For all these reasons, they said the guidelines violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which broadly ensures parents’ rights to direct the education and upbringing of their minor children.

The guidelines in question direct all Montgomery County staff members 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. They specifically instruct Montgomery County staff 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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Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
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Most importantly, the guidelines state that every trans and non-binary student should be treated on a case-by-case basis and the student’s individualized needs and safety must be taken into account when taking any of the above steps.

“The guidelines do not aim to exclude parents, but rather anticipate and encourage family involvement in establishing a gender support plan,” Grimm wrote in his opinion. “[They] serve primarily as a means of creating a support system and providing counseling to ensure that transgender children feel safe and well at school.”

Castillo said there are two important points the judge’s opinion made about this case and others like it. First, the court ruled that parents don’t have a fundamental right to be properly informed of a child’s gender identity—an area in which there was little to no case law. Second, the ruling underscored that schools have a legitimate interest in providing safe and supportive environments for all students, including those who are trans and gender non conforming.

But while other federal and state courts could look to the decision, they aren’t bound by it. And the specific district policies under review in the other pending cases differ.

The lawsuits are part of a larger effort targeting LGBTQ+ students. Dozens of bills across the country aim to censor classroom conversations about sexual and gender identity, mandate that trans students play on sports teams aligning with their sex assigned at birth, and limit what healthcare and counseling resources LGBTQ students have access to in schools.

Several of these bills have been passed into law already.

“These laws and other efforts are harmful not only to LGBTQ students in particular who face increased threats of bullying,” Castillo said, “but to the entire school community that seeks to ensure that all students receive equal opportunity to participate in educational programs and activities.”

Survey data suggest that the laws have deeply frightened LGBTQ youth.

According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 Mental Health Survey, 93 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that they have worried about trans people being denied access to gender-affirming medical care due to state or local laws, 91 are worried about trans people being denied access to bathrooms of their choice, and 83 percent are worried about transgender people being denied the ability to play sports.

The nonprofit surveyed almost 34,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 across the United States.

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