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Federal lawsuit challenging Eau Claire schools transgender policy dismissed

Federal judge rules anonymous parents behind suit lack legal standing, for lack of evidence policy harmed them or their children

Joanna Smith, of Houston, walks her twin first-graders home from school.
In this May 4, 2017 file photo, Joanna Smith, of Houston, walks her twin first-graders home from school. One of her children is transgender and Smith fears the child’s school would be compelled by the state to “out” her child’s biological gender should a “bathroom bill” become law. John L. Mone/AP Photo

A federal lawsuit attempting to overturn guidelines supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming students at Eau Claire schools has been dismissed. A federal judge ruled parents bringing the challenge didn’t show evidence guidelines harmed them or their children.

In September, an anonymous group calling itself “Parents Protecting Our Children” sued the Eau Claire Area School District claiming a policy aimed at supporting students who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming violates parental religious and constitutional rights.

The group was represented by conservative law firms Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and America First Legal, which was launched by former President Donald Trump aide Stephen Miller. Together, they focused on language used during a teacher training session that stated, “parents are not entitled to know their kids’ identities.”

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“Specifically, the Policy allows and requires District staff to treat a child as if he or she is the opposite sex, by changing the child’s name, pronouns, and intimate facility use, all without the parents’ knowledge or consent,” the complaint said.

Federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker of the Western District of Wisconsin didn’t rule on the merits of the arguments brought by the parent group but noted that “the Guidance does not instruct staff to keep the information secret and it makes clear that the student’s name will not be changed in the district’s system without parent/guardian permission.”

Instead, Crocker ruled the group of parents lacked standing because the plaintiffs did not allege any of its members’ children are transgender or gender non-conforming, that the district has applied the policy toward members’ children or that any parent has been denied information related to their child’s identity.

“Plaintiff’s entire standing argument is premised on a speculative chain of possibilities, including future choices made by individuals who have not yet been identified, indeed who cannot yet be identified because they have not acted, and they might never act,” Crocker said during his ruling. “This will not suffice.”

In a statement sent to Wisconsin Public Radio, WILL Deputy Counsel Luke Berg said plaintiffs “strongly disagree with the decision and plan to appeal.”

“The decision effectively allows a clear violation of parents’ rights to continue unchecked,” Berg said.

Tim Nordin is the president of the Eau Claire Area School District Board of Education. He told WPR he’s pleased with the judge’s ruling even if it’s not a full vindication of the case or the district’s guidelines. He said the policy isn’t secretive nor an attempt to keep parents from learning about their children.

“The vast majority of the time that students are accessing these gender support plans, it is with the support and direction of their parents and family,” Nordin said.

Nordin said in situations where a student comes out at school before coming out at home, the goal is for staff to act as a bridge, while supporting them.

He said the pushback against LGBTQ+ rights and policies coming from some conservative groups and lawmakers is political.

“It is an attempt to weaponize fear of change and fear of the unknown in order to gather power, frankly,” Nordin said.

This is the second time in the past three years that WILL has challenged transgender school policies in Wisconsin. In a February 2020 lawsuit filed against the Madison Metropolitan School District, the argument was nearly identical — parents rights were being violated because the district policy allows for children to change their names and pronouns at school without parents’ permission.

That year, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington partially blocked enforcement of the policy but left the rest of it in place because parents brought the suit anonymously.

WILL asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to step in and block the policy entirely in July 2022. The court, which has a majority of conservative justices, chose not to block the Madison school disrict policy in a 4-3 vote, with Justice Brian Hagedorn focusing on the procedural issue of whether parents bringing the suit could remain anonymous. The case continues in Wisconsin circuit court.