2021 | Schools

In response to lawsuit, MCPS says gender identity guidelines protect students’ safety

Parents say withholding information violates state, federal laws

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In response to a lawsuit challenging when MCPS notifies parents of their child’s gender identity, the district argues that it is not required to disclose information that “might expose the student to harm.”

The parents of two MCPS students recently filed a federal lawsuit that said MCPS’ guidelines expressly prohibit staff members from disclosing students’ gender identity preference to their parents. The parents say the guidelines violate the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

FERPA, passed in 1974, prevents public disclosure of students’ personally identifiable information, and gives parents the authority to access their children’s education records.

Because students can fill out a form detailing their gender and name preferences, the families argue it is an education record they are entitled to access, even if their child doesn’t want them to.

MCPS recently filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the district is not legally required to disclose information that “could put a student in danger” and that parents do not have an “unfettered right to direct how their children will be treated while at school.”

In its filing, MCPS wrote that parents have the right to “make important decisions about the upbringing of their children,” including whether to send their child to public school.

But, once parents decide to send their child to public school, MCPS wrote, “those schools have the responsibility for the educational environment in which the students learn and a compelling interest in ensuring that environment is safe and supportive.”

While some families are supportive of transgender students, MCPS wrote, some are not. In some cases, children will be “rejected” for their gender identity “or worse” when their preference is revealed to their parents.

“The Guidelines do nothing more than recognize that fact and provide professional educators with guidance for how to exercise their professional judgment in navigating that complex situation,” MCPS wrote. “Contrary to Plaintiffs’ claims, a public school is not legally or constitutionally required to reveal information to a parent that could put a student in danger.”

No state law requires the school district to release information about a student’s gender identity, MCPS wrote. Additionally, the guidelines are not a formal policy and do not universally require withholding of the information.

The guidelines do not explicitly say the information should be withheld from parents if it is requested, but they do suggest staff members should not willfully provide the information without the student’s OK.

In its motion to dismiss, MCPS wrote that safety is the district’s “overarching goal,” but that the guidelines direct schools to “work towards sharing information with parents to the extent it is safe to do so.”

The guidelines say MCPS staff members should use the student’s legal name and pronouns that correspond to the student’s sex assigned at birth when communicating with their parents or guardians — again, unless the child says it’s OK to do otherwise.

The guidelines go on to say that just because a student shares their identity with staff members or other students, it “does not authorize school staff members to disclose students’ status to others, including parents/guardians.”

The parents who filed the lawsuit also argued that MCPS’ guidelines infringe on their ability to parent their children.

The lawsuit said MCPS is “evaluating” minors and allowing them to socially transition genders without consent.

In its response, MCPS wrote that state law prohibits the district from preventing parents from choosing a “different path of education.” If the parents do not agree with the guidelines, MCPS wrote, they can enroll their child in private school or homeschool to “more completely oversee their children’s expression of gender identity.”

“What Plaintiffs seek here — to expand the scope of parents’ basic control of their children’s schooling to include a right to dictate the operations of public schools — has, time and again, been rejected by courts,” MCPS wrote. “… the Guidelines impose no limits on how Plaintiffs may counsel their children on gender identity or expression. The Guidelines do not reach inside the family home and do not restrict anything that parents may discuss with their children.”

The parents who filed the lawsuit are not identified. The complaint says the policy changes do not directly affect their children, who are enrolled in the school district.

The parents have asked for the federal judge to declare that the MCPS guidelines violate state and federal law, and impose injunctions preventing their implementation.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com