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Important takeaways: A federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Southern Division held that a school district’s guidelines allowing students to use their preferred pronouns at school without notifying their parents did not violate parents’ rights. The guidelines were created to promote safety and inclusivity for all students, which is a legitimate government interest.
Facts: Three parents of Montgomery County Public School (School District) students brought an action alleging that the 2020-2021 academic year Guidelines for Student Gender Identity in the School District violated state and federal constitutional rights along with state and federal laws and regulations. The School District filed a Motion to Dismiss in response to the complaint.
The parents’ complaint alleged that the new Guidelines allow school employees to evaluate minor children about sexual matters and allow minor children to transition socially to different gender identities at school without parental notice or consent. The Guidelines also require school employees to use the child’s preferred pronouns. The parents who filed the complaint did not allege that their own children were transgender or gender nonconforming.
The Guidelines state the goal is to support a positive learning environment and provide reasonable accommodations around a student’s gender identity while maintaining the student’s confidentiality. Part of the guidelines include ways to support the students including Gender Support Plans that discuss how the student is still able to participate in school activities free of discrimination. The Guidelines require that before contacting a student’s parent or guardian, the staff member should speak with the student as to what level of support the student thinks their parent will provide. If the staff member feels as though there may be a safety concern for the student and support is required, they should contact the School Support and Improvement of the Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement. The staff member is to work with the student toward a student-led plan that works toward the inclusion of family, if possible. This plan will consider the safety and privacy of the student. The Guidelines discuss the students’ rights to privacy and the right to share their gender identity as they choose. The Guidelines say that staff members are not authorized to disclose a student’s status to parents/guardians unless legally required or with student permission.
The parents allege that the Guidelines violate Maryland Family Law by interfering with parents’ statutory right to provide their children with support, care, nurture, welfare, and education. The parents claim that keeping documents related to Gender Identity confidential from parents, the Guidelines violate their rights. The Federal Court Judge held that the Guidelines were not meant to apply to every single transgender student as they specifically said that every situation had to be evaluated independently. The Judge also explained that the Guidelines cannot be read to adopt parents as they actively encourage family involvement in the Gender Support Plans whenever possible. The Guidelines also must be read in the context of why they were designed as a whole, which was to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all students.
The Judge held that parents do not have a fundamental right to be promptly informed of their child’s gender identity. The Guidelines most closely resemble a curricular challenge and public-school policy decision so are subject to rational basis review which means the Guidelines must bear some rational relationship to a legitimate interest. Here, the School district has a legitimate interest in providing all students with a safe and supportive environment, and the Guidelines support that interest. All state law claims were also dismissed.
What this means: School District guidelines that allow students to use their preferred pronouns at school may not violate parents’ rights if the school has a legitimate interest in having those guidelines. These types of guidelines should also include family involvement whenever possible.
What is the name of the case and where you can read it: John & Jane Parents 1 v. Montgomery Cnty. Bd. of Educ, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, August 22, 2022. Read it here.
As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, and Kevin by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.