Group of teachers’ complaint against Harrisonburg schools can proceed, judge rules

By Bridget Manley, publisher

In a setback for the Harrisonburg School Board, a judge on Tuesday denied its request to throw out the legal complaint several teachers are pursuing in connection with the district’s policies regarding transgender students. The judge also imposed a 28-day deadline for the school district to provide documents the teachers’ attorneys have requested. 

This is the continuation of part of the lawsuit a group of teachers and parents filed last year asking the court to strike down specific approaches the school district has taken in relation to transgender students.  Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group that has represented the plaintiffs, argued that training materials from 2021 encouraged teachers to not disclose to parents if a child wished to be called by a different name or pronouns. The group said it violated the teachers’ and parents’ rights.

In November, Rockingham County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Baugher heard arguments from attorneys for both the school board and the parents and teachers. Ultimately, Baugher dismissed the parents’ complaints and denied the motion for a temporary injunction on the district’s policies. The judge also denied the group’s suit against Superintendent Michael Richards specifically. 

But Baugher allowed the teachers to proceed with a narrower case against the district.

Following Baugher’s opinion in December, the school board’s lawyers filed motions asking the judge to reconsider the decision and dismiss the case for lack of standing.  

In this case, Andrew Fisher, outside counsel representing the school board, told Baugher that the school district was asking for the dismissal because the teachers and their lawyers still could not provide evidence that they would be disciplined if they did not comply with teacher training materials. 

Fisher said that while the teachers have claimed that they feared being disciplined, they hadn’t presented any proof, nor had the teachers asked the district for accommodations. 

Baugher said for many people, when an employer tells their employees that they should implement something, the theory of discipline would be implied. 

Vincent Wagner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told Baugher that throughout the last year of trading legal briefs back and forth, the school board would not disavow punishment for any employee who wouldn’t call students by their preferred names and/or pronouns, and refused to answer questions about whether employees would be punished in the future. 

Fisher pushed back, saying board members and district officials couldn’t disavow any kind of future punishment, because an employee might take actions that would constitute discrimination against a child, according to Virginia laws that have include protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students since 2020. 

Baugher also granted the teachers’ request to compel the school district to hand over documents as a part of “discovery,” which enables the parties to know before the trial what evidence may be presented. 

The board’s attorneys had filed a motion in July to delay handing over documents until the court issued a final ruling on whether the case should go forward. 

Fisher told the judge that while the board was not trying to “play games” with discovery, the plaintiffs had asked for broad swaths of documents covering both present and past employees. The discovery would be “expensive and burdensome” according to court documents. 

Fisher said if the judge denied it’s motion to reconsider, the school board intended to provide responses to discovery. 

After a ten-minute recess in which Baugher went to his chambers to review the plaintiff and defendant’s affidavits, he denied the board’s motions to reconsider and dismiss the case, saying there is precedent in Virginia for the teachers to be worried about discipline in the future. 

The school board now has until March 21 to provide documents the teachers’ attorneys have requested, and another court date will be set in the coming months. 

For additional context, read The Citizen’s past coverage.

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