'A Trifecta of Harm': Federal Judge Says California School District Can't Force Teachers To Lie to Parents About Gender Identity

Tony Thurmond (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
September 15, 2023

A federal judge on Thursday blocked a San Diego-area school district from forcing teachers to lie about a child's gender identity to their parents.

The ruling from the U.S. District Court for Southern California absolves two longtime teachers from complying with a mandate that they say violates their religious beliefs while courts continue vetting their case. Escondido Union School District adopted its secrecy policy to match the state’s own guidance, which does not have the force of law, instructing schools to conceal students’ gender explorations from parents.

"The school’s policy is a trifecta of harm: it harms the child who needs parental guidance and possibly mental health intervention to determine if the incongruence is organic or whether it is the result of bullying, peer pressure, or a fleeting impulse," U.S. District Court judge Roger Benitez wrote. "It harms the parents by depriving them of the long recognized Fourteenth Amendment right to care, guide, and make health care decisions for their children. And finally, it harms plaintiffs who are compelled to violate the parent’s rights by forcing plaintiffs to conceal information they feel is critical for the welfare of their students."

The ruling comes as California attorney general Rob Bonta has mounted an all-out battle against a growing number of school districts that are bucking state guidance to secretly transition kids. Earlier this month, Bonta secured a state court restraining order against Chino Valley Unified School District, the first to adopt a so-called parental notification policy for kids who ask to be treated as a different gender at school. A full hearing on the case is set for next month.

Benitez rebuked Bonta and the state’s Democratic leaders who are trying to enact a secrecy policy in every school district. He called for a blanket court order against California’s guidance for schools to lie to parents, which he said defies "knowledgeable medical opinion."

"With no evidence to the contrary at this point, it must be concluded that the State is the driving force behind [the district’s] alleged violations of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights," Benitez wrote. "If the plaintiffs succeed in proving their case, a permanent injunction against the state defendants will be necessary to accord full relief."

Bonta did not respond to a request for comment.

Lawyers who are critical of the state’s onslaught welcomed the injunction, which they say reveals the flaws in California’s position.

"The secret policies are unlawful in the first place," said Julie Hamill, a Los Angeles-area attorney and school board member. "There’s no logical or legal justification for a school district to concoct a plan with a child for a gender transition without discussing it with the child’s family."

The teachers in the Escondido case are Elizabeth Mirabelli and Lori Ann West, who sued in April 2023 after unsuccessfully trying to win a religious exemption from their district’s secrecy policy—which was adopted without any school board or public input. Administrators did not tell parents that it was in place, legal filings show. In a presentation to teachers included in those filings, a district social worker told teachers that parents and guardians "do not have a legitimate need for the information" about their child’s gender confusion.

Attorneys for the school district instructed Mirabelli and West to stonewall any parent who might ask them about their child’s gender identity. The teachers were told to answer that the parents’ question was "outside the scope of the intent of their interaction," according to legal filings.

At the same time, school counselors were guiding students’ gender transitions, using a "gender support plan" for the children and broadcasting to staff through regular emails which kids to start socially transitioning and how to conceal the fact from their parents.

One school counselor flagged seven girls who were identifying as male, "they/them," or "he/it" on campus. Only two had at least one parent who was aware of the new identity, the counselor said.

A victory for the teachers will likely tee up a battle in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as it contradicts a separate federal court ruling from July, when a judge dismissed a mother’s lawsuit against a Northern California school district that secretly transitioned her daughter. In that case, the judge said concealing a child’s gender confusion supported the state’s interest in guarding against discrimination.