Judge bars school district from deceiving parents about student's gender transition

Students seen in a high school classroom.
Students seen in a high school classroom. | Reuters/Stephane Mahe

A court in Wisconsin has ruled that the Madison Metropolitan School District cannot deceive parents about their child's chosen gender identity at school.

Dane County Court Judge Frank Remington issued a temporary injunction on Monday that impacts certain parts of the school district’s gender identity guidance on how school officials engage parents about a student’s gender transition. 

The order comes after the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), along with the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of a group of anonymous parents.  

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The parents challenged the school district guidance adopted in April 2018 that advises employees to assist students in their gender transition at school without notifying their parents. 

WILL argues that the district’s guidance tells employees to “deceive” parents about the gender identity their son or daughter is identifying as at school and encourages teachers to have students' permission to notify or speak with parents about issues relating to their gender identity. 

The lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the “Guidance & Policies to Support Transgender, Non-binary & Gender-Expansive Students” document violates parental and religious freedom rights enshrined in the state constitution.

Remington partially granted the plaintiff’s motion for an injunction. 

The school district is enjoined pending the plaintiffs’ appeal from enforcing any policy, guideline or practice that “allows or requires District staff to conceal information or to answer untruthfully in response to any question that parents ask about their child at school, including information about the name and pronouns being used to address their child at school.”

“This injunction does not create an affirmative obligation to disclose information if that obligation does not already exist at law and shall not require or allow District staff to disclose any information that they are otherwise prohibited from disclosing to parents by any state or federal law or regulation,” Remington wrote. 

WILL Deputy Counsel Luke Berg said in a statement that the order “is an important win for parental rights as the court considers this matter.” 

“We are pleased Judge Remington issued this injunction that will require honesty when Madison Metropolitan School District staff interact with parents about critical matters impacting their child’s health and wellbeing,” he said.

According to The Wisconsin State Journal, the April 2018 guidance is not formally adopted school board policy but is an administrative guidance. 

School district spokesperson Tim LeMonds disputed the conservative groups' claim that school officials are instructed to deceive or conceal information from parents. In a statement given to local media outlets, LeMonds said that what is in question with the guidance is not an official policy. 

“MMSD prioritizes working in collaboration with families to support our students and it is always our preferred method of support," LeMonds said. "MMSD will continue to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of every individual student to the best of our ability.”

Arguments over the motion for temporary injunction were held last week amid the organizations’ appeal of an earlier denial to a request for the plaintiffs to proceed anonymously in the case. 

The request for the plaintiffs to proceed anonymously without disclosure to the school district’s attorneys was again denied by Remmington, who initially denied the request in May. 

“Furthermore, the inescapable effect of being anonymous, the court additionally finds that the Plaintiffs have not adequately demonstrated irreparable harm to them,” the order states. 

“The Plaintiffs demand preliminary relief that would otherwise convert the case to a de facto class action, rather than a plea for relief by particular, albeit anonymous, parents. By not identifying themselves, Plaintiffs have not provided facts sufficient for this court to find irreparable harm or to find that they do not have an adequate remedy as to themselves.” 

WILL also argued in the lawsuit that the school district can’t enable a gender identity transition at school without parental notice. However, Remington declined to issue an injunction based on that argument at this stage of the litigation. 

It also argues that the judge’s ruling “sends a clear warning message to the District that its policy is problematic.”

WILL initially reached out to the school district with a demand letter sent in December 2019. 

The group stressed that the guidance essentially allows children of any age to transition to a different gender at school without parental notice or consent. The legal groups contend that employees were also instructed to “deceive parents” by using the child’s legal name and pronouns when talking with parents while using the preferred names and pronouns of the students in the classroom. 

“A long line of cases from both the United States Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court establishes that parents have a constitutional right under the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions ‘to direct the upbringing and education of [their] children,’” The demand letter written by Burg argues. 

WILL initially represented 14 parents and the number has since dropped to six. Considering that Remington has denied the plaintiffs' request to proceed anonymously, that request has been appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, an intermediate appellate court. 

Berg told the State Journal that the parents who have dropped out of the lawsuit have either moved out of the school district or pulled their children from its schools. 

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