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I can’t say I didn’t see it coming when a federal judge denied a request by a group called Parents Defending Education to temporarily enjoin the Linn-Mar Community School District from enforcing its new policy related to gender identity last Tuesday. The writing was on the wall almost a week prior, when Judge CJ Williams expressed doubt that the plaintiff had successfully demonstrated “evidence of actual injury.” I also can’t say that the judge made the wrong decision in declining to block the policy from taking effect until the lawsuit to nullify it altogether is decided.
This might seem like a tremendous departure from my position when I first wrote about Linn-Mar’s new policy, titled “Transgender and Students Nonconforming to Gender Role Stereotypes,” back in May. It isn’t. I continue to assert as I did four months ago that the policy passed for the benefit of a very small minority of students could easily come at a grave cost for others.
The word “could,” presents a hypothetical situation, though, and in order for an issue to have standing in a court of law, the plaintiff must demonstrate “injury-in-fact,” that they have or will imminently suffer injury if the relief for which they petition is not granted. Linn-Mar’s policy was passed a month before the last school year ended and the injunction deliberated less than one month into the new school year, so very little time has even passed during which a student would actually be at risk of suffering harm from the new policy. Courts do not (and absolutely should not) rule on hypotheticals, and no caring and concerned individual is going to hope for a child to experience the kind of harm they fear will happen under the new policy simply for the sake of being able to go to court. So it’s a swing and a miss for the plaintiff — that plaintiff being not the parents themselves, but the organization suing on their behalf.
But whether a permanent loss or a temporary setback, the fear that many Linn-Mar parents have of their children being harmed by the new policy is not assuaged. That fear stems mostly if not entirely from three separate concerns. The first is that their children as young as 12 years of age may end up sharing intimate spaces such as locker rooms or overnight lodging accommodations with students who are biologically of the opposite sex without their prior knowledge or consent, adding extra complexity to the already complicated dynamics of teenage bodily awkwardness.
The second concern of parents is that through the establishment of “gender supports,” their children could be enabled or even encouraged by school staff to make the profoundly consequential decision to transition to a different gender while they as parents are kept from the process. Text of the policy indicates that the discretion to include or exclude the parent lies solely with the child and contains no language requiring the child to specify the reason for excluding them.
Granting the ability to a child as young as 12 to keep their parents in the dark about something so incredibly significant could result in catastrophic injury to the parent/child relationship. Worse, it would happen at a stage in the child’s life when they are already naturally inclined to rebel, and in an era when smartphones and social media expose them to an infinite universe of influence that their parents could not have fathomed during their own upbringings. So much of that influence, including that which is gender-identity themed, is based not on science but ideology and can easily become unhealthy. It could also prove incredibly dangerous to a child’s long-term physical and mental health if acted upon while a parent is kept out of the loop.
The third concern among parents is that their children could be subject to severe disciplinary action if they have conflicts with using pronouns which do not match the biological sex of the person they are describing. For some, that could be as simple as a logical struggle to state something different from what the eye sees. For others, the reluctance could be based on conscience, such as religious beliefs related to gender identity. Regardless of reason, failure to use“preferred pronouns” could snowball into serious consequences when board policy describes “misgendering,” either intentional or accidental, as “a form of bullying and harassment,” and violation of the district’s anti-bullying and harassment policy is treated with discipline “which may include suspension and expulsion.” Pronouns aren’t slurs. Yet alleged misuse of them has apparently been escalated to the severity of unwelcome sexual advances.
At Linn-Mar, such a scenario remains hypothetical. Elsewhere, it isn’t. As I wrote in May, the Title IX coordinator for a school district in Kiel, Wisconsin filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment against three middle school boys this past spring. The allegation contained a single word: “Mispronouning.” The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) got involved and the case against the three boys was eventually dropped by the district, but not before the district attempted to complete the whole Title IX process, which can remain on an accused student’s transcripts and could jeopardize future academic plans.
Notably, the Title IX complaint against the three boys in Wisconsin was completed not by the student against whom the boys were alleged to have committed “mispronouning,” but by the school’s Title IX coordinator. A lawyer with the WILL told me that it has not been confirmed whether the complaint actually originated with the student, or if the complaint was made by a faculty member outside the behest of the student. Open records requests are still pending, and due to confidentiality, it may never be known who actually initiated a sexual harassment complaint against three adolescent boys for failing to use they/them pronouns.
But it brings up a troubling question that all school districts with gender equity policies and parents should consider: Even in seemingly trivial situations, could a school staff member feel moved or even compelled by their obligations as an educator to rush into the disciplinary process when they observe what they interpret is a violation of the gender identity policy? Like every other person on the planet, school faculty members are human beings and are capable of mistakes. Everybody gets it wrong sometimes, and jumping the gun to take action can certainly qualify as such. But when teachers and administrators get it wrong, it is students — children going through the most awkward years of their lives — who get hurt.
Those who favor strict gender identity-based policies seem to contend that the only way to get it right for gender nonconforming students is to implement the policy they’ve put in place. They’re wrong. And it begs a heartbreaking question: How is it that our only solution to support those students is through processes that could in fact further alienate them from their parents, enable risky decision-making, and punish anyone who dares? Unlike the one posed by the group that tried and failed to halt those processes, that’s a question that can’t be determined by a court of law.
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