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Court Criticizes School’s Policy of Concealing Students’ Preferred Names from Parents

A teacher cannot be disciplined for refusing to conceal from parents the preferred names and pronouns that their children adopt at school, according to a recent injunction from the federal district court in Kansas. A teacher challenged the school district’s policies of (1) requiring teachers to adopt a student’s preferred names and pronouns, and (2) prohibiting teachers from revealing to parents those preferred names and pronouns. The teacher, Pamela Ricard, alleged that the policies violated her sincere religious beliefs. The court denied Ms. Ricard’s request for an injunction against the first policy (“Preferred Names and Pronouns Policy”) because the school district stated that it would not discipline Ms. Ricard for her practice of using the students’ preferred name and avoiding any use of pronouns.

The court granted an injunction against disciplining Ms. Ricard for violating the second policy (“Communication with Parents Policy”). The judge accepted as sincere Ms. Ricard’s expressed belief that the policy of requiring teachers to conceal student’s preferences from their parents violated her religious convictions against lying and false statements. The court then balanced the school district’s justifications against that sincere religious belief.

In what is the most interesting part of the opinion, the court examined the school district’s defense that  “it was not the District’s place to ’out’ a student to their ‘parents.’ And the District’s counsel argued that ‘if the home life is such that the —the student doesn’t want to be out to their parents, it’s not our job to do it.’”  The Court noted that, contrary to the district’s claim, the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA) actually requires that parents be notified of information such as preferred names and pronouns used in school records. Moreover, “parents in the United States have a constitutional right to control the upbringing of their children. This is not a trivial right—it is a fundamental one that is ‘perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests.’” (citations omitted).

The judge recognized that there might be situations where disclosing a student’s decision to become transgender could place them at risk of abuse. The opinion notes the obligation of school officials to report such concerns to child protection authorities, and held

Even if the District had articulated an interest in preventing abuse by a parent (that is, abuse as the law defines it, and not simply as an administrator might subjectively perceive it), the Communication with Parents Policy would not be narrowly tailored to achieve such an interest. . . . An appropriately tailored policy would, instead, make an individualized assessment whether there is a particularized and substantiated concern of real harm—as opposed to generalized concern of parental disagreement—and prohibit disclosure only in those limited instances.

This decision only granted a preliminary injunction, and no doubt there will be more evidence as discovery proceeds. Its analysis, however, sets out a framework that youth organizations need to heed. Parents, even those we disagree with, have a fundamental right to raise their children. Before the state can interfere with that right, it needs to have evidence of specific and tangible harm from a child’s parents.

It is difficult to envision why a school would even claim—much less how a school could establish—a generalized interest in withholding or concealing from the parents of minor children, information fundamental to a child’s identity, personhood, and mental and emotional well-being such as their preferred name and pronouns.

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youth services law, schools, insights, ausburn_deborah

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