Community Perspective: Lawsuit over policy keeping Harrisonburg parents in the dark very much alive

A contributed perspectives piece by Deborah Figliola

A number of teachers are challenging the Harrisonburg Public Schools’ disturbing policy that dictates how teachers must approach students struggling with their gender, and I am one of them. A lot of “misinformation” is flying around about the legal case, and some have even suggested that it has failed. It has not.

I am very grateful that the court recently recognized the importance of the rights at stake here. And the case is moving forward, with a hearing just having taken place on Feb. 28.

My reason for being involved in the lawsuit is simple: I can’t lie to parents about their children, and I can’t lie to students about who they are.

I have been a teacher for more than 25 years, much of that as a middle-school special-education teacher. I love my students and would never want to say anything that harms them. I know how hard things can be when my students feel uncomfortable at school. I’ve seen how this is particularly tough when students are struggling with questions around their identity and self-worth.

But I also see how much children need their parents’ involvement, especially when a child struggles with identity. More than anything, I want to see these students talk through their struggles with their parents, who know and love them better than anyone else. And I hope that, together, they can work through these challenging questions. Yes, it can be messy, but parents still have a right and responsibility to be a part of their kids’ lives.

On all other topics, the school board and administrators seem to share my desire (and conviction) to involve parents. Teachers are encouraged to talk to parents about so many things: grades, sports, extracurricular activities, conflicts with classmates, personal struggles—that is, as long as gender identity is not involved. If gender identity comes up, then per school board policy, we are no longer allowed to speak openly with parents.

We teachers were given specific instruction in the last school year that we must immediately ask all of our students for their preferred names and pronouns and always use those names and pronouns with the students while only using their names from their official records in communications with parents. In other words, we were instructed to hide students’ preferred names and pronouns from their parents.

That is wrong. Parents know their children best and will remain in their children’s lives much longer than any educator will, which is why it’s critical that parents are centrally involved from the outset. Any school policy that automatically hides information from parents deserves very close examination, regardless of what issue it concerns.

That is why, in good conscience, I knew I could not hide information from parents or deprive children of the opportunity to walk with their parents through agonizing identity struggles. So, along with other teachers and parents in the community, I raised my concerns with the school. Many spoke up at school board meetings, and there was even a petition presented. But when our concerns were brushed aside, including in two letters that our attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom sent to avoid legal action, I and other teachers felt we had no choice but to file suit.

Fortunately, a local judge weighed in with a ruling in December. Despite the school district asking to have the lawsuit dismissed in its entirety, the judge agreed with us that the school district’s policy may violate teachers’ constitutional rights. The court took the school district at its word when it said that it would not hide information from parents, dismissing the parents’ claims in the case. But the court left the door open for those claims to be brought again if the school district is found to be hiding information from parents as its policy suggests it will. The case moves on, as it should.

My hope remains that we will ultimately see the court affirm something that is inarguably true: Schools cannot lawfully keep parents in the dark about their children’s wellbeing. The greater involvement of parents on these tough issues will only serve to benefit the students in our district.

Deborah Figliola is one of several teachers suing the Harrisonburg City Public School Board.

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