‘Pushing parents out’ or ‘misinformation’? Lawsuit against schools comes after months of back-and-forth

Harrisonburg City Public Schools passed its policy regarding transgender students in 2021, as Virginia state law and the Virginia Department of Education directed districts to do.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

A lawsuit filed last week against the Harrisonburg School Board came after months of correspondence between the national organization representing the six local plaintiffs and school officials over the district’s policies regarding transgender students. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization based in Arizona, has argued that policies the school board approved infringes upon parents’ rights by excluding them from having a say in a child’s preferred name, pronouns and gender identity. School leaders have pointed to documents outlining how the policy includes a student’s parents in discussions about such issues. 

According to letters the Harrisonburg City Schools posted on the district’s website, the Alliance Defending Freedom began sending letters to Superintendent Michael Richards in January demanding that the school system immediately rescind the policy concerning the treatment of transgender students who have changed their names and/or preferred pronouns.

The lawsuit asserts that the district’s teachers are required to use the pronouns and names requested by students, while “actively hiding information about that request from the child’s parents.” 

“Our clients are alarmed that HCPS is seeking to impose an ideologically driven one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with these delicate and sensitive issues that is harmful to children, while surreptitiously pushing parents out of the conversation,” the ADF’s Jan. 14 letter to Richards says.

Richards, in a response to the ADF, outlined the process for students to request a name or gender change. Saying that school officials would work with students on a case-by-case basis, Richards wrote that any teacher who has been asked by the student for a name or pronoun change would consult with the school’s counselor. 

“The school counselor then works with the student and ultimately convenes a team consisting of school staff and administration, the student’s family, and other school partners, as needed on a case-by-case basis to support the student,” Richards’ letter said.  

Richards said that like other student nicknames, all official school documents for students who are minors would use legal names “until otherwise authorized by a parent.”

“As part of the privacy and respect afforded to these specific student matters, we believe it most appropriate for the school counselor to lead the communication with students and families,” Richards wrote in his Jan. 28 letter. 

He also called it a “genuine effort … to communicate in both a constructive manner and in an effort to provide information responsive to the concerns.”

Richards declined to be interviewed for the article, citing ongoing litigation. 

In a statement, Richards said the school board has approved nondiscrimination policies and has a statement affirming a commitment to inclusivity.  

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

Another back-and-forth in April

The group describes itself as “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Alliance Defending Freedom as a designated hate group, citing its statements regarding people in the LGBTQ community. 

In a statement to The Citizen, Jeremy D. Tedesco, Senior Counsel and SVP of Corporate Engagement of ADF said, “The Southern Poverty Law Center is a thoroughly discredited, blatantly partisan activist organization with zero moral authority. The truth is, Alliance Defending Freedom is among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans.”

Ryan Bangert, ADF’s senior counsel and vice president of legal strategy, told The Citizen that the organization had been in contact with parents in Harrisonburg, and “ultimately they requested that we bring this lawsuit on their behalf.” 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include HPCS teachers Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh and Laura Nelson, as well as parents Timothy Nelson and John and Nicolette Stephens. Laura Nelson is also a parent of children in the city school system. 

Bangert said those parents and teachers are worried about their parental rights within the school system, as well as the “harm the policy is causing to kids in the school district.”

Bangert said ADF has been representing parents and teachers in other lawsuits in other Virginia counties, including Loudon and Albemarle Counties. 

Katherine L. Anderson, ADF’s senior counsel and director of its Center for Parental Rights, wrote in a follow-up letter to the district on April 1 that Richards’ letter explaining the school process proved the point that, “it is HCPS’ policy and practice to exclude and deceive parents unless and until a school counselor or child decides otherwise.”

Richards said in both of his letters that the school policy includes parents as part of the student’s process of name changes and/or preferred gender changes, on a case-by-case basis. 

“Your assertion that our practice ‘too often excludes, deceives, and usurps the role of parents’ is simply incorrect,” Richards wrote in his April 19 response to Anderson. “We stand by our practices, which include a team approach that supports the unique needs of the student, their families, and others on a case-by-case basis. We recognize that all students and student situations are quite different.”

He referred to ADF’s characterizations of the process as “misinformation.” 

“The reality is that we see parents as partners and give great deference and respect to the student’s family,” Richards wrote. “Our school teams do a fantastic job of engaging with families on all issues concerning the welfare of their students. This is our practice that you are asking us to rescind.”

But Bangert said training materials from the school district include language that encourages teachers to not utilize the student’s preferred name in communication with parents or guardians if they are not aware of the change. 

ADF has posted those training materials on its website. In the lawsuit, ADF says the training materials came from a session at Keister Elementary School. 

The training presentation refers teachers to share information about preferred pronouns with the student’s assigned counselor, including if the teacher isn’t sure whether the student’s parent or guardian is aware of the name or pronoun change. That slide also says the teacher shouldn’t be the one to notify parents. 

“If a student has not shared their gender identity or preferred name with their parent/guardian, it is not appropriate to take the lead on sharing this information or to contact the parent/guardian to ask permission to utilize the preferred name,” it says. 

Bangert declined to say whether any teachers who joined in filing the lawsuit felt compelled to lie to parents because of the policy — or if the parents who signed onto the lawsuit didn’t learn about their child’s desire to change names or preferred pronouns. He said the lawsuit spoke for itself.

In the suit, the teachers all cite religious beliefs as one of the reasons they cannot affirm students who choose different pronouns or withhold information about their gender identity from parents, but none of the teachers gave examples where they were forced to do so. 

Similarly, the parents, who say that the policy interferes with their parental control should one of their children struggle with their identity, do not say that teachers lied to them regarding their child’s name change or chosen gender.  

The policy and the history

HPCS updated its policy to reflect the changes the Virginia General Assembly made to the laws in spring 2020. 

Virginia House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 161 required local school boards to adopt policies on the treatment of transgender students that were consistent with the model policies developed by Virginia Department of Education.

The Education Department released its recommendations for local school boards in March 2021. 

Starting that summer, the Harrisonburg School Board worked to adopt its policy in keeping with the law. And the board implemented it in August. 

The lawsuit names board members Nick Swayne, Deb Fitzgerald, Andy Kohen, Kristen Loflin, Kaylene Seigle, Obie Hill and Superintendent Michael Richards as defendants. 

Bangert said the organization believes the 2020 Virginia law is “objectionable in and of its own right,” and said the school board has gone further than the “already objectionable set of recommendations.”

This article was updated after its original publication to include a quote from ADL regarding the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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