UPDATE, Saturday, July 1, 2023: Judge Says Rock Springs School District Can't Hide Transgender Treatment From Parents
A Rock Springs school district facing a lawsuit for allegedly helping to socially gender-transition a high schooler is asking a federal court to dismiss the case.
But some of the claims the district makes in its motion conflict with its apparent intentions in emails between school district officials and staff, obtained by Cowboy State Daily.
Motion To Dismiss
Sweetwater County School District No. 1 on Thursday filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Sean and Ashley Willey, parents of a teenage daughter who started identifying as a boy her freshman year of high school.
School district staff used a male name and pronouns for the student without the parents’ knowledge for six months in 2021 and 2022, until Ashley Willey discovered the practice, the couple’s April lawsuit alleges.
The school district’s motion asks the U.S. District Court for Wyoming to dismiss the claims made by the Willeys:
That the district violated their fundamental parental rights to raise their children and to familial privacy.
That the district violated the family’s exercise of religion.
That the district violates Ashley Willey’s speech and religion rights as a teacher in another of the district’s schools because of transgender-friendly name and pronouns procedure staff is required to follow.
The Willeys’ claims don’t give them standing or a proper case, according to the school district’s motion.
Ashley Willey noted in the couple’s lawsuit that the school district has dispatched a procedure requiring staffers to use transgender names and pronouns for students who request it, which she said violates her religious and free-speech rights.
Ashley Willey also alleges that the district encourages staffers to hide alternate names and pronouns from parents.
The school district, conversely, says Willey hasn’t been harmed by the procedure yet, and likely will not be.
“Ms. Willey has never been in a position where she has been required to refer to a student by pronouns she finds objectionable — whether on religious grounds or otherwise,” says the district’s motion.
A Time To Lie?
The district claims its procedure doesn’t require teachers to lie.
“Ms. Willey alleges throughout her complaint that her civil rights will be violated by being required to lie,” says the motion. “The district procedure in question does not require or encourage any teacher to lie to anyone.”
The procedure itself says staff must use students’ preferred names and pronouns, and that they could be disciplined if they don’t.
However, the district while discussing that procedure also crafted a talking-points guide for administrators indicating occasions for lying to parents, according to the district emails.
“So we don’t tell the parents?” reads one of the talking-points questions listed in an Aug. 10, 2022, email from School District Superintendent Kelly McGovern to administrators.
“If the student requests privacy, we honor that request,” reads the proposed response in the email.
Another of the talking points directs staffers to approach transgender and gender-nonconforming students privately at the beginning of the year, to learn how that student would like to be addressed at school, and in the presence of parents.
“What about the parents’ rights to direct their student’s education?” asks another talking-point question.
“There is no state or federal statute or any case law that gives a parent a right to dictate how a school or teacher refers to a student informally, if it is in line with the student’s wishes,” reads the response.
Another talking point tells teachers they have no choice.
“What if I personally disagree with calling a student by a preferred name or pronoun?” says the talking-point question.
The answer: “You will honor the student’s request … Harassment and discrimination of students will not be tolerated.”
Actually, A Case-By-Case Basis
Despite the strong wording of the talking points guide, McGovern on Aug. 18 dispatched another set of emails, one to administrators and one to trustees, aimed at “calming the storm” since “questions have come forward.”
Such issues, say the Aug. 18 emails, “have always been handled by the District on an individual case-by-case basis.”
McGovern would say again at a Sept. 12 school board meeting that the district handles transgender students’ preferences on a case-by-case basis.
But the storm kept raging.
District Human Resources Director Nicole Bolton on Sept. 7, 2022, sent an email to principals, saying a social media post featuring a screenshot about school procedure was gaining traction on social media.
The screenshot echoed the words of an earlier correspondence, which a principal sent to McGovern on Aug. 2.
That email included a talking point saying, “If a student is requesting the use of a transgender name and/or pronoun, we will honor that request. It also is not our obligation to notify the parent of this request and we will not do so.”
Bolton was concerned since the screenshot had erupted on social media.
“We never said we are going to hide things from parents nor encourage that,” reads Bolton’s Sept. 7 email reacting to the post. She reiterated the case-by-case basis notion, saying the district still would “error (sic) on the side of the child.”
“If you have shared any type of message that conveys this message,” Bolton continued, “this needs to be corrected immediately.”
‘Hell To Pay’
Retired teacher Bob Legerski confronted Bolton and McGovern in a Sept. 13 email, saying he’d be upset and angry if the district had kept his own children’s information from him while they were in school.
“If something of this magnitude was kept from our current district administrators concerning their own personal children while attending school, there would have been hell to pay,” wrote Legerski. “Keep parents informed. Keep parents involved.”
Bolton wrote back, telling Legerski the district’s statements were being taken out of context, and it would prioritize students’ physical and psychological wellbeing, especially where parents don’t support students’ gender identities, with the expectation that their parents would “eventually be involved.”
Bolton’s letter assured Legerski that the district was just following the law.
The situation, said Bolton, is “not any different” from keeping intel of abuse from a parent suspected of that abuse.
“If we aren’t communicating with a parent I promise there is a reason,” wrote Bolton.
In the Willeys’ case, Sean Willey lamented in September that district staffers didn’t tell them about their daughter’s secret lifestyle. The Willeys in their lawsuit said their daughter has a history of trauma and her counselor advises against socially gender transitioning.
Some of the Willeys’ claims, alleges the district’s motion, are moot.
After her mother’s discovery, the student herself asked school staffers to call her by her original name and pronouns, according to the Willeys’ complaint. The district says this makes the Willeys’ claims of injury, and request for the court to block actions allegedly causing such injury, moot.
The Willeys’ complaint does make that concession, but the couple has since filed another document with the court alleging that they found a secret cellphone their daughter had May 1 and learned from it that at least three teachers at Black Butte High School still are using the transgender terms for her.
Following The Law
The district is just following federal law, says its Thursday motion, which cites 2020 case law equating workplace sexual discrimination with discrimination against gay and transgender people.
The court’s interpretation also applies to education laws, the school district alleges.
That assertion is being contemplated in a federal court outside of Wyoming. In about 20 states, President Joe Biden’s mandate via the U.S. Department of Education for schools to use gender identity accommodations for transgender kids has been blocked from enforcement amid a multi-state lawsuit against the department.
Sweetwater County School District No. 1 says the Wyoming Constitution’s equal-protection guarantees are even more protective than those of the U.S. Constitution, and support its procedure.
The state Constitution prohibits discrimination based on “any circumstance or condition whatseover other than individual competency, or unworthiness” found in a court.
You Still Can Raise Your Child
The Willeys still can raise their child as they see fit, says the school district.
“It is unclear what medical or mental health treatment Plaintiffs insinuate Defendants have provided to the Student,” says the filing.
The Willeys had accused the district of administering mental health treatment to their daughter without their knowledge or consent, by calling her by the alternate name and pronouns.
To support this claim, the couple attached an affidavit by transgender doctor and psychologist Erica Anderson, saying that social transition — aka, treating students as the opposite sex — has profound mental impacts and decreases the chances of a child desisting from gender transition altogether.
A federal regulation provides that, where children can consent to medical treatment without their parents, their parents also don’t have the ability to access that medical record, pertaining to such treatments.
The district invoked that regulation in its motion.
The timing is uncanny: Some Wyoming legislators railed this month against that exact regulation and have pledged to temper it with state law.
Do Not Conform This School
The district says the Willeys are trying to conform its procedures to fit the family’s own beliefs, or Ashley Willey’s own preferences.
“Attempts to conform public conduct to accommodate private religious beliefs have opened the door to unexpected, and likely unwanted, consequences,” says the motion, referencing the case of a satanic organization’s bid for an after-school program.
“The Procedure at issue is content neutral and accurately reflects the current requirements of federal law,” says the motion. “It does not impact, alter or restrict Plaintiff’s right to instruct or raise the Student in any manner they see fit.”
No Right To Familial Privacy
The school district cited Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – the landmark 2022 case that overturned Roe vs. Wade – in rebutting the Willeys’ claims of familial privacy.
“No right to privacy is mentioned in the United States Constitution,” reads the motion. “It is unclear what federally protected right to privacy Plaintiffs are claiming was violated in light of the unmistakable holding of Dobbs.”
The Willeys can’t change the district’s procedure in the name of the free exercise of religion, alleges the school district, because doing so would interfere with others’ religious rights.
The district repeats the same argument with regard to Ashley Willey’s assertion that the procedure violates her free speech right as a teacher.
Students and others, insists the school district, also have a right to free expression that Willey’s request for court action could harm.
“It is not unreasonable for the District to expect that Ms. Willey will teach classes in a professional manner that does not distress students,” says the motion. “Ms. Willey is asking this Court to require the District favor a sectarian tenet over the rights of students to attend school in a safe and inclusive environment that requests their right to an identity.”
That right to identity, the motion reiterates, is found in the Biden administration’s and some case law’s interpretation of Title IX, the education non-discrimination law.
“Just the threat of Ms. Willey exposing a student’s identity would have a chilling effect on (free) expression in contradiction of the rights guaranteed them under Title IX,” says the motion.
Colorado-based attorneys Kathleen Chaney and Eric D. Hevenor filed the motion on behalf of the school district.