Parents, teachers sue Virginia school district over gender identity policy

A group of six parents and teachers is suing the Harrisonburg City Public Schools over a policy that requires educators to hide students’ gender pronouns and transitions from parents.

Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh, Timothy and Laura Nelson, and John and Nicole Stephens filed the lawsuit last week in Rockingham County Circuit Court.

It alleges that the school district policy, which requires teachers to ask students their preferred names and pronouns to use at school without parental knowledge, violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech.

“Each child’s situation is unique and warrants loving and tailored attention — attention that is best determined not by school officials, but by parents,” the lawsuit states.

Two of the plaintiffs teach in a Harrisonburg middle school and grade school, respectively. A third, appearing as a plaintiff with her husband, teaches English as a second language in a high school and has children in the district. The other three are parents with children in district schools.

The complaint says the plaintiffs, all practicing Christians, assert the right of parents to seek psychological help for children who show signs of “gender dysphoria” or confusion about their birth sex.

It seeks an injunction to overturn the district’s policy, which Harrisonburg adopted in August after the Virginia Department of Education issued a model policy on the treatment of transgender students and instructed all public schools to adopt local versions.

Harrisonburg’s policy, posted online, requires that if a student’s preferred name and pronoun differ from their biological sex, teachers must notify a guidance counselor.

The counselor then discusses the issue with the student and is not allowed to inform parents of the student’s request to be treated as transgender or as nonbinary while on campus.

The lawsuit accuses the district of going beyond the strict requirements of the state policy.

A spokesperson for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in November on the strength of a campaign that emphasized parental rights in education, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal advocacy group based in Arizona, is representing the parents in the case.

“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,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Bangert. “As the clients we represent believe, a teacher’s role is to support, not supplant, the role of the parent.”

In January and April, ADF sent letters to Harrisonburg City Public Schools on behalf of the parents. The district responded with letters defending the policy and discouraging a lawsuit.

In response to the lawsuit, the district posted a statement on its website with copies of the ADF letters and responses.

The statement reads in full: “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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