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CEDAR RAPIDS — Attorneys in federal court on Tuesday debated the issues of bullying, harassment, parental rights, school obligations, and free speech in arguing for and against Linn-Mar's new policy aimed at protecting transgender and nonbinary students.
U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams did not immediately rule on a national parental advocacy group’s request that the court bar the Linn-Mar Community School District from enforcing its “Transgender and Students Nonconforming to Gender Role Stereotypes” policy while a lawsuit to negate the policy is pending.
Instead, he asked probing questions of each side — the national Parents Defending Education organization and the Linn-Mar school district.
Judge: Have parents been denied information?
Williams pointed out that anonymous parents cited in court documents as being concerned that their children might seek a school “gender support plan” without their knowing haven’t yet asked for a plan. So, he said, they haven’t yet been denied that information, and thus harmed.
“If that’s all I have, how does that give me confidence that an action will occur?” Williams asked the plaintiffs’ attorneys Tuesday. “I have no facts in front of me that any parents have asked … I still have to have evidence of actual injury.”
The judge also pressed Parents Defending Education for evidence of the anonymous parents’ assertion that, “There is a substantial risk that their children will receive a gender support plan or other gender ‘affirming’ actions from district officials.”
“When this happens,” according to the lawsuit, “parents B and C want to ‘exercise their fundamental rights to guide their children’s upbringings and help them navigate any issues that might arise regarding their perception of their gender identities.”
Under the new policy, the lawsuit argues, the parental role will be “displaced by Linn-Mar administrators who do not know their children as well as they do.”
To the judge’s request for evidence, attorney James F. Hasson said the parents suspect as much due to gender-related and nonbinary things their children have said. One has been to therapy for issues with gender conformity, according to Hasson.
“The people who know their children best are concerned about it,” he said.
Plaintiffs: Information could be concealed from parents
Hasson told the court Tuesday his clients’ argument focuses on two key issues with Linn-Mar’s policy, which the school board passed in April following heated community debate.
First, Hasson said, is a parent’s “constitutional liberty in the care, custody, and control of their children.” Under the new policy, he said, students could make “fundamentally important decisions concerning their gender identity without any parental involvement” and even hide decisions from parents.
Should a student get on a “gender support plan” to aid in gender transition, such a plan could, according the lawsuit and attorney arguments: require employees and students to call them by a new name and pronoun; have a student’s name changed on government documents; allow a student to use the restrooms of their choice; allow them to play on sports team aligned with their new identity; and allow the student to “room” with other students of their gender identity.
Not only could the school take such action without parent involvement, it could “actively conceal information from the parents,” Hasson said.
“There is nothing in the policy that says if a parent asks, the school will answer,” he said.
School district: Policy prohibits harassment, not free speech
The second key issue addressed in the lawsuit is free speech. The policy punishes students “for expressing their sincerely held beliefs about biological sex and compels them to affirm the beliefs of administrators and their fellow students,” according to the lawsuit.
Such punishment, he argued, could come down even if a student accidentally refers to someone by the wrong name or pronoun.
“Students do not abandon their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Hasson said.
Attorney Miriam D. Van Heukelem, representing the school district, argued none of the parents suing the district over concerns their children will be punished have shown they actually have been.
The parents, according to Van Heukelem, “simply disagree with the premise of the policy and do not want their children to be subject to it.
“But for a party to have standing, they must have suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.”
The policy, according to Van Heukelem, doesn’t compel any speech “whatsoever” — meaning a concerned student can simply not talk to the peer in question. When students do choose to address one another, they should do so without harassing or discriminating against them — which aligns not just with the new policy but many of the district’s other policies.
The new policy isn’t aimed at punishing accidents. And its prohibition against “intentional and/or persistent refusal” to respect a student’s gender identity applies to all students — including those who conform with their gender but are being bullied, Van Heukelem said.
“Discrimination or harassment that is cloaked as First Amendment speech cannot be permitted,” she said.
Van Heukelem stressed before the judge Tuesday that nothing in the Linn-Mar policy bars a school from informing parents and involving them in gender issues — it just doesn’t require as much.
“This policy is not intended to hide information from parents and families,” she said, noting it does conceal information from “other” parents and families, who “routinely” ask the district if any transgender students are in their children’s class or sports team.
It also aims to keep students safe — including those who might not feel comfortable asking for gender guidance at home.
Van Heukelem argued the court should not take the “extraordinary measure” of granting an injunction because, “Public interest weighs in favor of eradicating discrimination.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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