Parents Sue Linn-Mar School District Over Policy Supporting Trans, Non-Binary Students

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Seven anonymous Iowa parents are suing the Linn-Mar Community School District over a policy that aims to protect transgender and nonbinary students from discrimination.

The district allows students to create Gender Support Plans and use their preferred name and pronouns at school and the school facilities that match their gender identity. For students in seventh grade and up, the student’s preferences are prioritized over parents, so transgender teens can attend school as their preferred gender, even if their family doesn’t approve.

The policy also explicitly states, “An intentional and/or persistent refusal by staff or students to respect a student’s gender identity is a violation of school board policies,” and lists policies against bullying and harassment.

The policy was approved on a 5-2 vote during a school board meeting in April. At the time, District Superintendent Shannon Bisgard said the policy was meant to codify practices the school already had in place and to make those practices clear to parents.

The parents who brought the suit are part of the group Parents Defending Education, and the lawsuit was filed Tuesday in US District Court.

The group formed last year, and on its website the group describes itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.” For example, the website suggests teaching ethnic studies in K-12 schools is problematic because “it seeks to tear people apart and paints a hideous picture of the United States” and is just another name for critical race theory, the framework used in some law school classes to analyze law and not actually taught to children.

The Complaints

According to the petition, the group filed the lawsuit for two reasons. One is because the district allows students to create these plans and decide who to share information with. The policy also says the district won’t disclose information about a student’s transgender status to others unless the student authorizes it. The group describe this as a violation of parents’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Parents are not automatically shut out of these decisions. It’s the student who decides who is involved, and the policy states parents/guardians can be the ones who contact the school and request supports for their child.

The beginning of the policy states that communication with students and/or parents/guardians is important. It also instructs schools to make case-by-case decisions about appropriate arrangements, based on the student’s or family’s wishes.

According to polling done by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention resource, fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming, which increases suicide risk, but LGBTQ youth who reported that their schools were gender-affirming also reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

The majority of trans and nonbinary youth reported school was a gender-affirming place (51%) vs the 32% who reported home was a gender-affirming place.

According to the polling, 71% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity.

The petition by Parents Defending Education also said the policy violates students’ First Amendment rights because it “punishes students for expressing their sincerely held beliefs about biological sex and compels them to affirm the beliefs of administrators and their fellow students.”

That refers to the part of the policy declaring repeated and/or intentional refusal to use the correct name or pronouns for another student is a form of bullying and harassment.

In the section of the lawsuit citing specific concerns, two parents say they worry their neurodivergent children will express a different gender identity without understanding what they mean and the school will make them a Gender Support Plan without telling the parents.

Three parents expressed concern their children will be punished for expressing their belief that only two genders exist and refusing to use preferred pronouns. They said they raised their children to stand up for their beliefs, and this policy interferes with their First Amendment rights.

The parents are seeking injunctions to ban the district from enforcing the policy and a judgment that the policy violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The school district has not released a comment or statement on the lawsuit.

Background on Backlash

“This lawsuit is nothing more than a media stunt intended to further drive publicity toward an exclusionary agenda,” said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “Linn Mar has simply implemented best practices that up until several months ago were on the Iowa Department of Education’s website as guidance for districts to implement. School districts have long required that students treat each other with dignity and respect and these policies are no different in that regard.”

Previously, the Iowa Department of Education had guidance on its website telling school districts that students could keep their trans status private and that the district should help keep it confidential. The guidance also said pronoun preference was up to students.

The Gazette reported that the guidance was removed months ago to check for continued legal accuracy.

Republicans, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and US Rep. Ashley Hinson, have attacked the policy for months, and the meeting where it was approved included close to 70 speakers during the public comment section.

The lawsuit joins an environment of backlash to growing visibility for LGBTQ identities and an increased push for more parental involvement in schools. In school and public libraries, it’s taken the form of challenging books by LGBTQ authors about LGBTQ characters and issues. It’s also led to bills proposed by the Iowa Legislature which limited the sports trans children could play, what books children could read in schools, and the way educators teach about topics such as racism and sexism.

The US Department of Education has released guidance for how schools should treat trans children and has confirmed that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Enforcement of those rules has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Tennessee.

Nikoel Hytrek
08/05/22

Have a story idea or something I should know? Email me at nikoel@iowastartingline.com. You can also DM me on Twitter at @n_hytrek

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