A month before school lawsuit reaches court, arguments fly in media appearances and affidavit

By Bridget Manley, publisher

As the Harrisonburg City School Board and a group of parents and teachers prepare to go to court over interpretations of teacher training materials given last year, Superintendent Michael Richards filed a sworn statement that counters some of what one of the teachers has been saying to media. 

Deborah Figliola, one of the district’s teachers involved in bringing the lawsuit, was a guest on “Fox & Friends First” last month and said she “didn’t want to lie to children and didn’t want to lie to parents” about changes in names and preferred gender pronouns that students might request. 

Figliola and fellow teachers Kristine Marsh and Laura Nelson, as well as parents Timothy Nelson and John and Nicolette Stephens, filed the lawsuit in June. A court date has been set in the case for Nov.1 at 1:30 p.m. at the Rockingham County Courthouse. 

The lawsuit claims that HPCS has implemented a policy that “forces teachers on pain of discipline to use any pronouns or names requested by a student, while actively hiding information about that request from the child’s parents.” It referred to slides in training materials the district provided to teachers last fall.

School Superintendent Michael Richards submitted an affidavit to the Rockingham County Circuit Court on Friday countering some of the lawsuit’s claims and outlining the district’s approach when a student wishes to go by a different name or pronoun.  

That training, a presentation called “Supporting Our Transgender Students,” was not a training mandated by the school district, according to Richards’ sworn statement. In addition, Richards said in the statement that the information outlined in the training materials was not presented as mandatory to staff. 

While the presentation was informed by the 2021 Virginia Department of Education Model Policy, it did not say teachers or staff would be subject to discipline by either the district or the school board for not complying.

Instead, the training materials were presented as “best practices” rather than policy that teachers were required to follow, Richards’ affidavit said.  

In an interview with The Citizen, Figliola was asked whether she experienced a case in which she was instructed to lie to a parent regarding their child’s change in name or gender pronouns. Figliola did not answer directly.

“That was the point of the teacher training,” said Kate Anderson, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom and Figliola’s lawyer, who was also on the phone call with The Citizen. “The teacher training was to convey to all of the teachers that this was the instruction from administration. That they were to hide this information from the parents.” 

Richards said that in compliance with the law, the school board revised the district’s nondiscrimination policy, adding “gender identity” to the list of expressly protected characteristics. 

His affidavit said that to assist faculty and staff, the HCPS administration developed a team-based process for responding to the needs of students and families. 

That process begins when a student tells a teacher about a desired name or pronoun change, which the teacher would then refer to the school counselor, according to Richards. The counselor would then assemble a team of school administration, the student’s family, and other support staff and mental health professionals to “promote a safe learning environment for the student.” 

Richards said at no point does the process include asking teachers to lie to parents. 

Figliola was given the chance to respond to Richards’ description of that process. She did not directly respond to the question, saying in part that she loved her students and that each child is an individual whose parents needed to be part of the process.

Richards previously outlined the process in letters he exchanged with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based conservative organization, that has worked with the teachers and parents to bring the suit. 

Raising concerns before the lawsuit

Richards’ affidavit follows the publication last summer of letters sent between Richards the Alliance Defending Freedom, which were exchanged beginning in January of 2022. 

In the letters, Richards initially explained the “team approach” that the city schools planned to implement, adding that he hoped he and the organization could have a “mutually respectful conversation.” 

During the interview with the Fox News program, the host asked Figliola and Alliance Defending Freedom CEO Kristen Waggoner to respond to the school district’s statement that officials were “dismayed” that the complaint has escalated to a lawsuit rather than trying to work it out. Waggoner said parents and teachers “voiced their concern.”  

Figliola told The Citizen that she was among several people who spoke at school board meetings before contacting Alliance Defending Freedom to begin the lawsuit. 

“There were a number of us that spoke up at board meetings, etcetera, and at the same time we also saw that basically this policy was already started, instituted,” Figliola said. “And we were not willing to, at that point, do those things, because we felt it was wrong. But most importantly, we did speak up at board meetings, and share that we were not happy with this.” 

Figliola then went on to say that they received no response. 

“Basically, we didn’t get a response,” Figliola said. “It was not a response at all, especially to different requests, etcetera.” 

In the affidavit, Richards said his office was aware of two concerns from teachers that came into his office during the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years and that neither came from any of the three plaintiffs employed by the school system. One employee expressed concerns in the 2021-2022 school year about being asked to “lie” to parents, and in the 2022-2023 school year, a representative from the Harrisonburg Education Association met with Richards to convey concerns from another teacher about being “asked to lie.” 

The affidavit says Richards explained in both cases that teachers were expected to answer truthfully, were not ever threatened with discipline at any time, and “under no circumstances was a teacher expected to lie to a parent.”

The Citizen reviewed School Board meeting minutes that span June 2021 through June 2022 — the timeframe between the introduction of the training materials in August 2021 and the filing of the lawsuit this June. The minutes reveal that while Figliola spoke at two board meetings last fall, neither of those comments reflected concerns about the change in the nondiscrimination policy.

According to the minutes posted on the HCPS website, Figliola spoke once at the Sept. 21, 2021, meeting regarding mandated COVID testing rules for unvaccinated teachers and again at the Oct. 5, 2021, meeting in which she talked about her frustration that staff members could not find the link for online public comment.

While a number of people who spoke during public comment against the changes in the nondiscrimination policy, none of the other five plaintiffs made any public comments at any meeting during that timeframe, according to the minutes.

Headed to court

Richards declined to add comment on the lawsuit, but he did say in the affidavit that adding gender identity as a protected characteristic “was informed by the fundamental objective that every child be treated with both dignity and respect and that they be cared for by their school community in a healthy and safe environment.”  

Figliola said her ultimate hope for the lawsuit is that the parents are considered in the decision-making process. 

“Whatever any issue is, we always contact parents,” Figliola said. “That is our go-to start point. I believe we should continue that in all areas just the same. And then, whenever there is a situation where a kid maybe shares that they are not comfortable with their parents, then we figure it out. We’ve always figured it out…So, starting off with the same protocol that we always use, we work with parents. It makes sense to me.” 

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