There is a growing trend among some public schools to keep parents in the dark about their own children’s health and well-being. Not only that, but some districts are forcing teachers to be complicit in this deception by compelling them to lie or withhold information about students to their parents.
Such is the case with Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) in Virginia.
Prior to the 2021-2022 school year, HCPS modified its nondiscrimination policy to add “gender identity” to its list of protected classes. It then developed and issued guidance that detailed new requirements concerning the treatment of transgender students. While the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) had developed new “model policies” regarding transgender issues, the HCPS policy went beyond VDOE’s already troubling recommendations, using even more radical wording.
HCPS’s policy and practice is that staff must affirm a student’s gender identity by using any name and pronoun the student requests, while hiding such requests from the child’s parents, unless HCPS employees determine the child’s parents are sufficiently “supportive” of their child’s “transition.”
Who is suing the Harrisonburg City Public School Board?
A group of HCPS teachers and parents from various schools is objecting to HCPS’s policy on the grounds of free speech, religious freedom, and parental rights.
The teachers challenging the school district’s harmful policy have a wide range of expertise and experience. They have taught special education, reading, and English as a second language (ESL) with tenure ranging from eight to 30 years. Each teacher has taught children from all walks of life and cares deeply about every student, including a growing number who are struggling with questions of gender identity.
The parents challenging the policy have children enrolled in the public school system, which they deeply value. They also cherish their role and responsibility as parents. They want to do what is best for their children and parent them well. But the actions of HCPS directly undermine those aspirations. If one of their children were to develop confusion about their gender identity, then HCPS could actively hide that information from their parents and make teachers complicit in hiding that information.
These teachers and parents recognize that a policy of immediate “social transition” and unquestioning affirmation of a child’s perceived gender identity without parental involvement is harmful, not to mention contrary to science. Each child’s situation is unique and warrants loving and tailored attention that is best determined by parents, not school officials acting on their own.
HCPS detailed its new policy in a presentation to HCPS staff. The presentation specifically states that HCPS staff must “Always utilize a student’s preferred name and pronouns” (emphasis in original).
The presentation also directs staff that “All communication should be in collaboration with the student,” not the student’s parents, and “If the parent/guardian is NOT aware, you should utilize the student’s preferred name at school but not in any communication with the parent/guardian” (emphases in original). In other words, HCPS staff are directed to hide information about a student’s struggle with gender identity from that student’s parents.
Such a policy violates the rights of both parents and teachers under the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.
What's at stake?
Parental rights are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions. And they include parents’ right to direct the upbringing of their children in accordance with their family’s values, especially on essential matters like their children’s education or health care. Parental rights don’t end at the schoolhouse gate. School officials should work alongside parents to assist in educating children, not seek to leave parents in the dark when it comes to profound decisions that involve the well-being of their own children.
Referring to students using preferred names and pronouns that differ from their biological sex carries a message about gender identity. The First Amendment and the Virginia Constitution not only protect what people can say but also what they cannot in good conscience say. Teachers should not be compelled to speak such messages to students or lie to parents about the parents’ own children.
The teachers involved in this case have sincerely held religious beliefs that govern and inform their views about human nature, gender identity, and speaking the truth. Public schools cannot require teachers to personally affirm a radical ideology that they believe is untrue and harmful to students. Government employees cannot be forced to lie or deny their core beliefs just to keep a job.
- August 2021: Harrisonburg City Public Schools modified its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity and developed guidance on the treatment of transgender students.
- January 2022: Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to Harrisonburg City Public Schools on behalf of a group of concerned parents and teachers. The letter asked HCPS to rescind its policy that requires all staff members to affirm a student’s gender identity by using any name and pronoun the student requests while affirmatively hiding this from the student’s parents.
- April 2022: After receiving a response from the district, ADF attorneys sent a second letter reiterating how “HCPS’ policy and practice too often excludes, deceives, and usurps the role of parents.”
- June 2022: ADF filed a complaint against HCPS for usurping the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children and violating the religious beliefs and free speech rights of school staff.
The bottom line
Parents have a right to direct the upbringing and education of their children. That includes the right to be informed about whether their children are using different names and pronouns at school, and to direct the school not to facilitate that behavior.
Schools cannot require teachers to lie to parents about their children’s circumstances or compel teachers to speak or affirm messages that are contrary to their core beliefs and that they believe harm the students.
Doing so undermines parental rights and destroys the trust among teachers, parents, and schools that serves to facilitate the best education possible for children.
ADF client Deb Figliola appears with ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner on "Fox & Friends First":