Lawsuit over gender identity dismissed by federal judge Schools can't be forced to out trans children, Mendez says

by Natalie Hanson
posted July 15

A federal judge has dismissed a Chico parent’s claim against Chico Unified School District (CUSD) over maintaining confidentiality rights for students.

U.S. Senior Eastern District Judge John Mendez

Chico mother Aurora Regino’s lawsuit, which claims that the district must out students who are trans or exploring their gender identity, has been tossed out of federal court. CUSD had argued that it follows state law in protecting the confidentiality of students seeking counseling.

Filed Jan. 6 in federal court in the Eastern District of California, Regino’s case alleges that a school counselor at Sierra View Elementary coaxed a student into adopting a male identity after the fifth-grader confided that they “felt like a boy.” Regino claims her child was encouraged to “socially transition” by adopting a new name and male pronouns. The school did not inform her, and the child later reverted to identifying as female.

The lawsuit named as defendants the Board of Education and CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley. It demands removal of the “Parental Secrecy Policy,” which Staley says doesn’t exist.

Aurora Regino

The lawsuit was the third in California filed by the right-wing Center for American Liberty over gender identity. The Center is headed by Harmeet Dhillon, formerly an adviser to President Donald Trump. It came at a volatile moment nationally as conservatives fire up their base with attacks on transgender rights.

“This court is not the venue for this political debate” — Judge John Mendez

Senior U.S. District Judge John Mendez -– who was appointed to the bench by former President George Bush — said the district policy in question is not proactive, but reactive, that district staff are not directed to force students to adopt transgender identities or keep their identities secret from their parents. Staff must affirm a student’s expressed identity and pronouns and tell only those whom students want to be told, with an exception for the student’s health.

He said that because federal courts possess limited jurisdiction “that have not been vested with open-ended lawmaking powers,” the state Legislature is a better venue for Regino’s complaint.

“This court is not the venue for this political debate,” he said.

(The Trans Legislation Tracker says 561 bills in 49 states have been introduced that would “block trans people from receiving basic healthcare, education, legal recognition, and the right to publicly exist.”)

The case quickly led to debate and turmoil at school board meetings, as some parents insisted the district was maintaining what they called a “parental secrecy policy.” Speakers at meetings debated whether children have a right to privacy that must be honored when gender identity is discussed. Some parents told ChicoSol that many of the public comments made their LGBTQ children uncomfortable.

A group that supports Regino’s suit, Chico Parents -– which has a Facebook group page -– wrote a resolution asking for families to have more control. The CUSD board majority, presented with the resolution, voted no after debate at a spring meeting.

In a 20-page order, Judge Mendez dealt the case a death blow, saying that Regino failed to claim facts that support her substantive due process claim. Substantive due process questions whether the government deprives a person’s rights to life, liberty or property, and if so, if it is justified by a strong purpose.

The district said in court filings that there are circumstances where disclosure to parents of what students tell counselors can lead to harm to students -– and the district has a legitimate state interest in protecting students’ privacy and creating a “zone of protection” from potential domestic violence. Staley’s legal counsel held a presentation at a recent board meeting to go over the policy so that parents would better understand how it is written under the state Department of Education’s anti-discrimination policy.

Regino had claimed that the district’s policy violates her substantive due process rights to make medical decisions for her children that go to the heart of parental decision making, and social transitioning is a significant form of psychological treatment.

But Mendez said Regino was advocating to expand her parental rights.

“None of the cases cited by plaintiff opine on whether the state has an affirmative duty to inform parents of their child’s transgender identity nor whether the state must obtain parental consent before referring to a transgender child by their preferred name and pronouns,” the judge wrote. “Also, while plaintiff alleges that the regulation permits social transitioning at school and this constitutes medical treatment, this allegation is conclusory and, thus, insufficient to raise plaintiff’s right to relief under substantive due process above the speculative level.”

“The issue before this court is not whether it is a good idea for school districts to notify parents of a minor’s gender identity and receive consent before using alternative names and pronouns, but whether the United States Constitution mandates such parental authority. This court holds that it does not.”

Mendez also said that Regino had no proof that a policy forbidding disclosure of a student’s gender identity without their consent “constitutes unwarranted interference in the parent-child relationship.”

“To the contrary, in the context of the instant case, the regulation refrains from
interfering with the established parent-child relationship by allowing students to disclose their gender identity to their parents on their own terms,” Mendez said.

The case has been closed, as the judge said he thinks allowing amendment of Regino’s claims would be “futile” since there are no facts that can be disputed or added to help Regino’s claims advance.

Regino and her lawyers did not respond to requests for comment before this story was posted. The Center for American Liberty’s website hadn’t posted the judge’s order as of July 15.

“We know there are differing viewpoints as it pertains to this case,” CUSD said in a statement to ChicoSol. “Chico Unified appreciates the patience of our community as we worked through the legal process. More importantly, the resolution of this case allows Chico Unified to maintain our focus and financial resources on the education and support of the students in the Chico Unified School District.”

ChicoSol invited CUSD board members to comment.

“The district was not doing anything close to what was being alleged, said Caitlin Dalby, president at large. “I hope this demonstrates to our community that the district maintains its commitment to respect all students, including our transgender students, and (their) right to privacy and that we’ve done the right thing in upholding our anti-discrimination policies.”

Caitlin Dalby

Trustee Tom Lando said he wanted to comment as a parent rather than as a member of the board.

“This dismissal protects the rights of vulnerable transgender students, and rebuffs another attack on public education by right wing political organizations,” Lando said. “It amazes me that no one talks about the fact that the suit was led by Harmeet Dhillon, a high-ranking Republican operative who makes a good chunk of money from Fox News by being professionally outraged about these issues. It’s frustrating to see outside interests cause division in Chico for their own gain.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California chapter, which joined the lawsuit, said in a statement online that the case is a win for children and their families, including nonbinary and trans children.

“Many California parents support their children for who they are and favor policies that allow students to be themselves on campus and give schools the flexibility to help students work towards family acceptance when needed,” said Jennifer Chou, staff attorney.

Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer to ChicoSol.

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