Allegheny mother sues school district to nix pro-trans policy

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On Jan. 12, a Washington DC-based law firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous Allegheny County mother against the Pine-Richland School District. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, is asking that PRSD’s pro-trans policies be declared “void, invalid, and unconstitutional,” as well as award the plaintiff monetary damages and attorney fees.

At issue is PRSD’s Policy AR103B, titled “Nondiscrimination in School and Classroom Practice-Gender and Gender Identity.” The policy covers a range of gender and gender identity issues involving students’ right to privacy, how the school district must respond to students’ gender issues, as well as “the right to keep one’s transgender status private at school.”

The mother who is suing, identified only as “Jane Doe” in the suit, is alleging that AR103B violates her Constitutional rights under the 5th and 14th Amendments, as well as violates her statutory rights under 20 U.S.C. § 1232h, which says, according to the lawsuit, that “without the prior written consent of a parent, the School District shall not submit any student to any analysis or evaluation that reveals information concerning, among other things, (a) the political affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parents, (b) mental or psychological problems of the student or student’s family, (c) sexual behavior or attitudes, (d) critical appraisals of other individuals with whom the student has a close family relationship, and (e) religious practices or beliefs of the student or student’s parents.”

The suit also argues that the statute “confers an individual right on parents to control whether their child will be subject to such evaluations and examinations by requiring the School District to obtain express written consent from a parent before performing them.”

Doe is being represented by Walter (Wally) S. Zimalong III, a prominent conservative lawyer whose firm, Zimalong LLC, has offices based in Villanova and elsewhere in the state. On his website, Zimalong describes himself as “a life-long conservative, [who] has been called a ‘conservative’s conservative,’ and the ‘go-to’ lawyer in Pennsylvania for conservative causes and candidates for office.…He frequently works with political advocacy groups and organizations to advance their missions through litigation. He is an active member of the Republican National Lawyers Association and Federalist Society.”

Doe is also represented by Nicholas Barry of the America First Legal Foundation, based in Washington D.C. America First is a far-right legal advice group founded by Stephen Miller, senior advisor to Donald Trump, whose website plainly states its MAGA-centric mission. 

The day of the filing, America First released a public statement regarding the suit. The statement reads, in part, Today, America First Legal filed a lawsuit against the Pine-Richland School District in Pennsylvania for hiding ‘gender transitions’ of students from their parents and providing students with a secret taxpayer-funded ‘gender transition team’ made up of government officials and psychologists, who will assist students in developing a plan to transition their gender.”

The statement goes on reiterating standard MAGA tropes about bathrooms, sports teams and genital mutilation of children, concluding with a statement by Nicholas Barry:

“As if we are living in a dystopian novel, schools across the country are now enacting policies to facilitate the genital mutilation and chemical castration of children without any parental input. These schools can’t give a child an Advil without parental consent because parents have the right to direct the care and upbringing of their children without interference from the government. But these same schools will socially transition a child without any parental input. However, a parent’s decision-making authority about what is in their child’s best interest cannot be transferred to some agent of the government simply because a child or the government disagrees with the parent’s lawful decision. That is tyranny. AFL will continue to fight for parental rights against this governmental tyranny.”  

PRSD requires school officials to obtain student consent before notifying parents of any changes to their gender expression, including the use of pronouns different from those used at home or a name that better aligns with their gender identity. It also allows students to meet with a support team without parental consent.

AR103B specifically says, “To ensure the safety and well-being of the student, District personnel should not disclose a student’s transgender status to others, including the student’s parents/guardians or other District personnel, unless: (1) legally required to do so, or (2) the student has authorized such disclosure.”

While the school district is refraining from public comment during the course of the litigation, many trans student advocates point out that trans students often have legitimate concerns about abuse or homelessness if outed to unsupportive parents and/or guardians.

These concerns are spelled out in AR103B: “In some cases, informing parents or guardians about a student’s gender transition could put a student in harm’s way,” noting that district staff “must work closely with the student to assess the degree to which, if any, the parent/guardian will be involved in the process and must consider the health, wellbeing, and safety of the transitioning student.”

Outing a student to their family — particularly without their consent — could pose a risk to their wellbeing. According to the Trevor Project, nearly 40% of all transgender youth nationwide have experienced homelessness, often from being kicked out of their homes or abandoned by family after coming out.

As of now, state law does not require school districts to take measures beyond ensuring students aren’t discriminated against under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. This litigation, depending on how the court eventually rules, may require a reassessment of these laws.