Virginia school district sued for forcing teachers to hide students' gender identity from parents

Superintendent says district "offered a collaborative approach" with the plaintiffs "throughout our correspondence with them" after January warning letter. "They refused each time. Their way or the highway."

Updated: June 6, 2022 - 1:27pm

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Virginia's Harrisonburg City Public Schools is violating the rights of parents and teachers by forcing the latter to address students by their preferred name and gender pronouns "on pain of discipline" while hiding students' gender identities from their parents, according to a new lawsuit.

The nondiscrimination policy and guidance, based on a model policy issued by the state Department of Education last year, both compels and restricts the speech of teachers in violation of the Virginia and U.S. constitutions and tramples their "religious convictions about gender and honesty," the suit says.

It's filed on behalf of parents and teachers by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is involved in similar disputes in Kansas and Wisconsin. 

The religious liberty law firm blacked out the plaintiffs' names in the version of the Rockingham County Circuit Court document it posted Saturday, but the Daily News-Record identified them as teachers Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh and Laura Nelson, and parents Timothy Nelson, John Stephens and Nicolette Stephens.

The district compels staff to "mislead and deceive parents," ADF said in a press release, violating parents' state constitutional and statutory rights to "direct the upbringing and education of their children." It previously warned the district in a January letter.

The district policy of "immediate social transition and unquestioning affirmation without parental involvement for every case of gender dysphoria in minors is harmful, not to mention contrary to science," the suit says. "Each child's situation is unique and warrants loving and tailored attention-attention that is best determined not by school officials, but by parents."

Counselors were told to report any teachers not using preferred names and pronouns to the administration at an August 2021 training, the suit claims.

"Teachers and staff cannot willfully hide kids’ mental health information from their parents, especially as some of the decisions children are making at school have potentially life-altering ramifications," Senior Counsel Ryan Bangert said.

Superintendent Michael Richards told Just the News the district "offered a collaborative approach" with the plaintiffs "throughout our correspondence with them. They refused each time. Their way or the highway."

He shared his response to the January warning letter, to which ADF "responded with more threats; and again, I replied with corrections to their false assertions and the offer to work with the unidentified plaintiffs on their concerns," he wrote in an email. "Without any response to that letter, they filed the suit. I didn't even know who the plaintiffs were until the suit was filed." Richard posted further correspondence on June 6.

 

In a formal statement, Richards said:

"Our School Board has general nondiscrimination policies within its Policy Manual and maintains a strong commitment to its inclusivity statement, all of which is available on our website. In specific student situations, the focus is always to foster a team approach that includes and supports the unique needs of the student and family on a case-by-case basis. HCPS also has systems in place to listen to and respond to employee concerns. We are dismayed that this complaint is coming to us in the form of a lawsuit in lieu of the collaborative approach we invite and take to address specific needs or concerns, an approach that we believe best serves the interests of our students, staff, and families."

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