Parents, teachers sue to stop Virginia school district's trans pronoun policy

A sign outside a classroom taken in 2016.
A sign outside a classroom taken in 2016. | REUTERS/Tami Chappell

A group of parents and teachers have sued a Virginia school district over a policy requiring teachers to use the preferred pronouns of trans-identified students.

The plaintiffs, whose names have been redacted, filed a lawsuit last week in the Circuit Court of Rockingham County against the leadership of Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

At issue is the school board’s decision to add “gender identity” to the school district’s nondiscrimination policy. The policy forces teachers to use students' preferred pronouns and withhold information about students' gender identity from their parents if the student requests they do so.

The lawsuit claims the policy “compels teachers to violate their religious convictions about gender and honesty” and “violates parents’ rights by interfering with their ability to direct the upbringing and education of their children.”

“Plaintiffs … are HCPS teachers and parents who object to HCPS’s policy on free-speech, religious-freedom, and parental-rights grounds,” the complaint reads.

"Plaintiffs deeply care about their students and children. They see the growing number of children struggling with gender dysphoria and want those children to experience love and support. But like many, Plaintiffs recognize that a 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 plaintiffs are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal nonprofit that has filed similar litigation against other school districts.

"Public schools should never hide information from or lie to parents about a
child's mental health," the complaint reads. "And schools should never compel teachers to perpetrate such a deception." 

ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Bangert said in a statement that he believes parents “have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing, care, and education of their children.”

“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,” Bangert stated.

“As the clients we represent believe, a teacher’s role is to support, not supplant, the role of the parent.”

HCPS posted a statement on its website stating that the school board “maintains a strong commitment to its inclusivity statement.”

“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,” stated HCPS.

“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.”

HCPS adopted the policy after the Virginia Department of Education mandated school divisions adopt similar policies to a model policy that it supported during the 2021-2022 school year. Other school districts adopted similar policies. 

In addition to the HCPS lawsuit, ADF oversees litigation against Loudon County Public Schools in Virginia over a similar measure known as Policy 8040.

According to the Loudon County policy enacted last year, school faculty and staff must use the chosen name and pronouns of a student who identifies as “gender-expansive or transgender.”

“School staff shall, at the request of a student or parent/legal guardian, when using a name or pronoun to address the student, use the name and pronoun that correspond to their consistently asserted gender identity,” read the policy.

“The use of gender-neutral pronouns is appropriate. Inadvertent slips in the use of names or pronouns may occur; however, staff or students who intentionally and persistently refuse to respect a student’s gender identity by using the wrong name and gender pronoun are in violation of this policy.” 

Last year, the Loudoun County Schools suspended teacher Tanner Cross after he voiced objection to what at the time was a proposed Policy 8040 during a school board hearing. He said the policy would "damage children" and "defile the holy image of God." He argued that affirming students' preferred pronouns is "lying to a child."

After a judge ordered the school district to reinstate Cross, the school district argued that it had received complaints from students and parents who "expressed fear, hurt and disappointment about coming to school" in light of Cross' comments. Loudoun County Schools said addressing those concerns was "paramount to the school division’s goal to provide a safe, welcoming and affirming learning environment for all students."

The Virginia Supreme Court rejected the school district's appeal of the court's order to reinstate Cross. 

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