Harrisonburg’s school district and group challenging district’s approach to transgender students clash in court

Image of a court filing

By Bridget Manley, publisher

A judge on Tuesday heard from attorneys on both sides of a lawsuit that a half-dozen teachers and parents brought against the Harrisonburg City Public Schools in connection to the district’s policies regarding transgender students.

The hearing on the issue, which has garnered nationwide attention in recent months, was held in Rockingham County Circuit Court in front of Judge Andrew Baugher, who is expected to issue his decision in the coming weeks or potentially as early as the next several days. 

Attorneys for six Harrisonburg teachers and parents are seeking a temporary or permanent injunction on gender policies that the Alliance Defending Freedom — the conservative Christian law group representing the plaintiffs — says violates teacher and parental rights, according to their interpretation of teacher training materials given to school district personnel in 2021. 

Attorneys for the members of the Harrisonburg School Board and Superintendent Dr. Michael Richards, the defendants in the case, filed a demurrer in response to the lawsuit. A demurrer is an objection that an opponent’s point is irrelevant or invalid, while granting the factual basis of the point.

Andrew Fisher, outside counsel representing the school board, told the judge that the plaintiffs gave no evidence in sworn affidavits submitted to the court that they were ever forced to lie to parents or that the parents were ever lied to, making their arguments “hypotheticals.”

Fisher pointed out that nowhere in the training materials, which the district provided to teachers last fall, did it say that the materials were mandatory, or that teachers would be disciplined if they did not follow the training. 

That argument aligns with a sworn affidavit filed last month by Superintendent Michael Richards, who stated that no teacher was ever threatened with discipline or expected to lie to parents. 

In follow up arguments, Vincent Wagner, senior counsel for ADF, argued that neither the Harrisonburg school board nor Richards had ever “issued a formal disavowal of punishment” for teachers who do not follow the training materials. As a result, the teachers in the lawsuit “go to work every day wondering when they will be disciplined,” Wagner said.  

When questioned by the judge, Fisher did not say the school board or Richards would disavow any punishment for teachers, but pointed out that in the 15 months since the training materials were given to teachers, no teacher had been disciplined for not lying to parents or asked to lie to parents. 

Part of Fisher’s argument focused on the case Lafferty v. The School Board of Fairfax County, in which a high school student and another resident of Fairfax County sued over the school board’s expansion of non-discrimination and student code of conduct policies. That board urged the court to dismiss the case, which a judge granted based on the plaintiffs’ failure to make a case that rights had been violated. The Virginia Supreme Court later upheld the ruling. 

Meanwhile, much of the arguments from Wagner focused around the idea of self-execution, broadly referring to the idea that something goes into effect or can be enforced after being created without anything else required. 

Wagner said teachers know they are expected to follow the school board’s instructions, and the teacher training materials were part of self-executing documents. 

Later in the hearing, arguments arose about the rights of parents to know when children were “socially transitioning,” with Wagner saying that parents have religious rights to raise their children in their religious views. 

Fisher later argued that transgender students also have rights that the school system needed to protect and that transgender students are a protected class of people under Virginia law. 

Meanwhile, while the hearing was going on Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of students staged a walk-out at Harrisonburg High School in support of transgender student rights and in opposition to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit, Figliola v. Harrisonburg City Public School Board, was filed in June on behalf of plaintiffs Deborah Figliola and fellow teachers Kristine Marsh and Laura Nelson, as well as parents Timothy Nelson and John and Nicolette Stephens. 

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