A Rock Springs couple said their school district helped their daughter socially transition to a boy behind their backs and has coerced teachers into secretly affirming transgender students. The couple is suing the district and its top administrators.
Sean and Ashley Willey filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming Thursday, against:
· The Sweetwater County School District No. 1 board of trustees
· Kelly McGovern, district superintendent
· Nicole Bolton, assistant superintendent for the district
· Kayci Arnoldi, director of student services for the district
· Bryant Blake, principal of Black Butte High School
Ashley Willey is the girl’s mother and sole legal guardian, and a teacher in the district, the complaint says. The document indicates Sean Willey is the girl’s stepfather and is raising her with his wife.
The Civil Counts
The Willeys as parents assert three civil challenges against the district and administrators: that the defendants took away the Willeys’ parental and due process rights, familial privacy rights, and religious rights.
Ashley Willey alleges two more civil counts against the district and administrators as a teacher under their policies: that they took away her right to the free exercise of religion and right to free speech.
The Willeys are asking the federal court to block the district’s alleged policies that help kids transition genders in secret from their parents and that coerce school employees into helping as well.
They also are asking for monetary damages compensating for the alleged harm these policies have caused, and for the district to reimburse their attorneys’ costs and other expenses in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit complaint accuses the district and administrators of calling the Willeys’ then-15-year-old daughter by a boy’s name and he/him pronouns behind the Willeys’ backs, and actively hiding the girl’s transition from her parents.
The girl has a history of trauma and has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder. She also has a 504 plan, or educational plan to accommodate her conditions, which requires the school to involve her parents in her mental health treatment. The Willeys have taken the girl to see a counselor for years, the complaint states.
“Affirming a discordant gender identity is antithetical to her health and well-being,” the complaint says, adding that the Willeys possess deeply-held religious beliefs that human beings are created male or female, and that they should not lie about this, nor lie to students’ parents.
Ashley Willey was teaching in a junior high school in the district during the events the lawsuit describes. She alleged the district has required her and other teachers to affirm transgender students in secret from their parents if students wish.
“(Staffers are) deceiving parents by treating and referring to children one way when communicating with parents and another way at school,” the suit alleges, calling this policy a violation of parental rights, family privacy and religious beliefs.
The school district’s superintendent and human resources offices did not return Cowboy State Daily voicemails and an email Friday morning. Black Butte High School also did not return a Friday voicemail.
During her freshman year at Black Butte High School in 2021, the girl had flashback nightmares relating to her childhood trauma, the complaint says.
She already was under the care of a private counselor her parents had chosen. When the nightmares began, the Willeys scheduled more counseling sessions for her. The girl also was growing uncomfortable with her body’s pubertal changes, the document says.
She voiced her issues to peers at school who said her discomfort and her interest in sports and other “male interests” were because she was “trans.”
The girl told her private counselor she thought she might be transgender, and the family and counselor started working through the girl’s feelings together, says the complaint.
“Unbeknownst to Mr. and Mrs. Willey” that year, the girl told teachers and staff at the high school to start calling her by a boy name and he/him pronouns, the suit alleges. She also told the district not to tell her parents.
Six Months Pass
No one at the school said anything to the parents about it for at least six months, the suit alleges.
On March 29, Ashley Willey participated in a district-wide training where she chatted with Black Butte teachers and asked them if they knew her daughter.
“Yes, I know (her),” said a teacher quoted in the complaint. “She’s a sweet girl.”
A second teacher seemed not to know the girl, so Willey showed the teacher a picture of her daughter.
The first teacher interjected with “It goes by (male name),” the lawsuit says.
“No, she goes by (female name),” responded Ashley Willey.
As the situation grew clearer, Ashley Willey asked how long her daughter had been going by a male name at school.
It had been going on the entire school year, both teachers said, according to the lawsuit.
‘Makes Her Uncomfortable’
Ashley Willey spoke with her daughter about it that same day. She told her daughter she’s too young to make such decisions and the double life had to stop, the suit says.
The girl allegedly said she felt pressured to continue using the boy’s name and pronouns because that’s how the district staffers regarded her. She was concerned district personnel would be angry if she didn’t follow “their direction,” the suit alleges.
Also that same day, Ashley Willey sent a direct message to teachers and staff at Black Butte, instructing them to use the girl’s female name and pronouns, or risk a report to the Central Administration Building.
“She is a CHILD who is not old enough to make life changing decisions such as these,” the email reads. “And even though this is absolutely none of anyone’s business besides… our family and her counselor, she has stated multiple times that she felt pressured into calling herself a boy, and that this makes her uncomfortable.”
The email accuses staffers of “encouraging things BEHIND her parents (sic) backs instead of coming to us, (which) has made the situation worse.”
Ashley Willey told the staffers they have a right to disagree, but they’re not the girl’s parents.
Tomboys No More
Ashley Willey also emailed Principal Blake that day, according to the complaint and exhibits.
“I am appalled and furious that you and your staff are participating in hiding this from her PARENTS,” reads the email. “She is in fact a TOMBOY which (concept) has disappeared since we were in school.”
Blake wrote back, saying he had reached out to the human resources department and would soon get further clarification from the district’s legal team.
Willey volleyed back that no clarification was needed except from the girl’s parent, and that she would meet with the superintendent and assistant superintendent: McGovern and Bolton, the lawsuit says.
Ashley Willey asked her daughter to tell her teachers to refer to her by her female name.
“Mrs. Willey later learned that (the girl) had told her teachers to call her (the female name) because her parents wanted it,” says the complaint.
At an April 2022 meeting Bolton told Willey, the suit alleges, that the teachers were using female name and pronouns because the girl requested it, not because the parents had.
Bolton also told Willey that if the girl changed her mind and wanted to be treated as a boy, staffers would honor that “regardless” of the parents’ direction. And they would not tell Ashley Willey, the complaint alleges.
The suit alleges Bolton said the school workers were required to honor children’s gender transitioning wishes without telling their parents “to protect the child’s safety.”
Personal And Religious Beliefs
McGovern told Ashley Willey when they met that Willey, as a teacher in the district, was not to tell parents about students’ requests to go by different names and pronouns, the suit alleges. Willey said this is lying, which violates her religious beliefs.
At the start of the 2022-23 school year, Willey received a policy – which she was to sign as an educator – requiring teachers to call students by their preferred names and pronouns or risk discipline, the complaint says.
Ashley Willey crossed out that language before signing the contract.
She met with Arnoldi and Bolton Aug. 15, the suit says, to voice her objection to that policy, particularly in light of her daughter’s challenging history.
Arnoldi told Willey the district wouldn’t honor her direction to treat her daughter as a female, the suit alleges.
Arnoldi later sent Willey an email.
“Unfortunately, we don’t get to base our decisions on personal and religious beliefs,” says Arnoldi’s email, according to the complaint and court exhibits. “We have to follow the policy and procedures that are set forth by law and recent court cases.”
If The Family Is Not Supportive
Bolton on Sept. 9 sent a district-wide email saying staffers “may” involve parents in students’ gender transitions, the complaint says, but the district will keep the information from parents when the student indicates his or her family “is not supportive of their gender identity.”
Bolton’s email said district staff would let kids receive mental health counseling from school employees “without parental consent,” the complaint alleges.
“The district is admittedly giving (the girl) the authority to exclude her parents,” it adds.
Emotional At The School Board Meeting
The controversy surfaced on social media, the lawsuit says.
The district addressed the community’s concerns at a Sept. 12 board meeting.
McGovern and school board Chairwoman Carol Jelaco said staffers decide whether to include parents in students’ transgender discussions on a “case-by-case basis.”
The Willeys in their suit say this claim is false, given their experiences and the district’s instructions to its staffers so far.
Sean Willey confronted the school board during the meeting. He said their daughter’s double life has caused mental breakdowns. The girl had been lashing out at her siblings and having other issues, he said.
“Not all students that go through… these situations are OK,” said Sean Willey. “They’re having issues mentally, and it’s a constant battle internally for them.”
Sean Willey said the district is crippling parents from helping their kids by keeping secrets from them.
Jelaco said at the meeting that “whatever the student wants is paramount” when “there is a fear from the student” regarding parents learning of his or her gender transition.
Sean Willey challenged this, saying if the school had evidence that Willeys’ daughter was in an abusive home, they would have had documentation or a Department of Family Services case to back that claim.
“Nothing was filed. Nothing – no claims were made,” said Sean Willey. “But they flew under the flag that they were doing it for my child’s safety and protection.”
The lawsuit says the Willeys believe the district still is treating their daughter as a boy and not telling them. But they have “no way of knowing.”
Ashley Willey as a teacher alleges that district principals are attending parent-teacher conferences to make sure teachers don’t tell parents staffers are treating children as the opposite sex at school.
Ashley Willey has asked to see her daughter’s records of school counselor visits under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But the district has “refused” to provide Willey with those records despite her daughter’s mental struggles, the suit alleges.
The Willeys accuse the district of implementing the “psychosocial treatment” of transitioning kids’ genders without “knowledge or consent of their parents,” in violation of Wyoming law.
Wyoming law gives parents the right to the care, custody and control of their children. It also forbids children generally from procuring their own health care and mental care, or entering into contracts.
The district’s attorney Kari Moneyhun noted at the school board meeting that Wyoming’s parental authority law doesn’t list education control as a parent’s right.
The district at its meeting said it’s relying on judicial case law in the matter.
Case law on transgender issues is varied. President Joe Biden’s administration interprets Title IX as forbidding school employees from using natal pronouns on transgender students or having them use the bathroom of their biological sex.
A federal judge is blocking that interpretation from being enforced in 20 states not including Wyoming.
Different federal circuits disagree on the issue. The Eleventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals determined in late December that school districts aren’t violating federal law or the U.S. Constitution when they deny cross-sex bathroom access to transgender students.
The Fourth Circuit in G.G. vs. Gloucester County made an opposite ruling in 2020.