A conservative advocacy group has followed through on its threat to sue the Madison Metropolitan School District over its guidance for staff on how to handle transgender or gender-questioning students.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court Tuesday morning on behalf of 14 anonymous parents, nearly three weeks after the deadline the group set in the fall for MMSD to rescind the guidance. MMSD sent a letter to WILL on that Jan. 31 deadline stating that it had not made any adjustments and stressed that the document is not a policy, as it was not voted on by the School Board.
The lawsuit alleges the guidance violates the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to “direct the upbringing of their children.”
“The Madison Metropolitan School District has violated this important right by adopting a policy designed to circumvent parental involvement in a pivotal decision affecting their children’s health and future,” the complaint states. “The policy enables children, of any age, to socially transition to a different gender identity at school without parental notice or consent, requires all teachers to enable this transition, and then prohibits teachers from communicating with parents about this potentially life-altering choice without the child’s consent.”
The lawsuit requests the court declare the guidance violates the rights of plaintiffs as parents, bar MMSD staff from facilitating a gender transition at school, allow staff to communicate with parents of children questioning their gender identity and require the district to retrain staff, among other requests.
In the Jan. 31 letter, district interim general counsel Sherry Terrell-Webb wrote that the guidance, created in April 2018, is "a manner of working with and being sensitive to our community members who identify as transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive youth."
"We periodically review all of our policies, practices and guidance," the letter states. "We will review this guidance in line with our other reviews with feedback from our stakeholders."
The district has defended its practice as a way to help students through what can be a challenging time in their lives and ensure their safety. MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that as of 11:30 a.m., the district had not been served of the lawsuit and could not comment on its claims.
"MMSD prioritizes working in collaboration with families to support our students and it is always our preferred method of support," LeMonds wrote. "MMSD must also prioritize the safety and wellbeing of every individual student who walks through its doors each day. It is with this focus, the district stands by its guidance document on transgender and non-binary students, and recognizes its tremendous responsibility to uphold the right of every child to be educated in a safe, all-inclusive and nondiscriminatory learning environment."
The guidance prohibits staff from disclosing to parents “any information that may reveal a student’s gender identity to others, including parents or guardians and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.”
“Transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive students have the right to discuss and express their gender identity and expression openly and to decide when, with whom, and how much to share private information,” the guidance states. “If a student chooses to use a different name, to transition at school, or to disclose their gender identity to staff or other students, this does not authorize school staff to disclose a student’s personally identifiable or medical information.”
Families can be “essential” in supporting LGBTQ+ students, the guidance states, but it also advises staff to use a student’s legal name and gender pronoun in communicating with families even if they know the student prefers a different name or pronoun.
“We believe that families love their children, have incredible dreams for them, and hope to keep them safe from harm,” it states. “We know that family acceptance continues to have a profound impact on the physical and mental health outcomes of our LGBTQ+ young people. In MMSD, with the permission of our students, we will strive to include families along the journey to support their LGBTQ+ youth.”
Parents serving as plaintiffs have children at a variety of district schools, according to the complaint: Allis, Lindbergh, Lowell, Emerson, Thoreau, Crestwood and Midvale elementary schools, O’Keeffe Middle School and East, La Follette and Memorial high schools.
“Since the Madison School District may successfully keep this information secret from them, Plaintiffs cannot wait to challenge this Policy until one of their children experiences gender dysphoria,” the complaint states. “By the time Plaintiffs learn the truth, the District may have already enabled their child to transition socially to a different gender identity without their consent, and that transition may become self-reinforcing, reducing the chances that their child will resolve the dysphoria in favor of his or her biological sex, as the vast majority of children do.”
The complaint brings up issues of mental health, how the term "supportive" can be defined by staff who are deciding whether to involve families, and training staff has received on the topic, among its issues. It also states that the policy being developed internally rather than publicly discussed and voted on by the School Board is a problem.
It specifically mentions the religious beliefs of some of the plaintiffs, as well, which leads them to “believe that the two sexes are a core part of God’s intended design for humanity and that the sex each of us is born with is a gift, not an arbitrary imposition.”
“As a direct result of their religious beliefs, if these Plaintiffs’ children ever experience gender dysphoria, they would not immediately ‘affirm’ whatever beliefs their children might have about their gender, but would instead remind them that they were ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ see Psalm 139:14, and seek to help them identify and address the underlying causes of the dysphoria and learn to accept and embrace their God-given sex,” the complaint states. “At the same time, Plaintiffs will never stop loving their children, or love them any less, no matter what they believe about their gender.”
The Madison Memorial High School Gender Equity Association began to rally in support of the guidance after WILL’s initial complaint in the fall, said junior Maggie Di Sanza and sophomore Amira Pierotti, two of its leaders. They said the guidance serves as an essential way to protect students’ rights and help them through a period of time that can be challenging, even with parental support.
“It’s just incomprehensible to me that anyone would target these rights and do it with not a care about the students, about kids,” Amira said in an interview last month. “This (lawsuit) isn’t for the betterment of others, this is because you are scared that you don’t know what’s going on with your kids and that you’re afraid they’re trans or gender-expansive because you are transphobic.”
Their advocacy has included circulating a petition to other district schools and creating signage for buildings to reassure students they have staff’s support. Amira cited statistics showing non-binary and gender fluid students are more likely to be kicked out by their parents, report anxiety and consider self-harm.
“It’s just a really frightening time right now,” she said, adding that showing “visible support” for those students is important when opposition like this is made public.
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