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Eau Claire parent suing for more information after students learn of teacher’s gender-affirming surgery

WILL asking court to force school district to turn over statement read to students

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A fifth grader raises her hand during class.
In this photo taken Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, a fifth grader raises her hand during class at John Hay Elementary school in Seattle. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Some Eau Claire parents are upset their school district didn’t inform them before telling students that a middle school teacher is planning gender-affirming surgery. Now, one mother is suing the Eau Claire Area School District to get more information about what exactly was said to her children.

The conservative law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, is representing Leah Buchman, who has four children in the Eau Claire school district.

On June 5, two days before school ended for the summer, orchestra students at Northstar Middle School were asked to report to the orchestra room where they were met by their orchestra teacher, a school counselor and the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion director.

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The students were told their orchestra teacher was transitioning from male to female and going forward, they were to address the teacher as “Ms.,” according to the complaint filed by WILL. Two of Buchman’s children were in the room for the discussion.

Students were told they could leave the room, or stay to hear the teacher’s story. All the students stayed.

The teacher told the students she experienced childhood trauma because her parents and friends did not accept that she was the opposite sex from what was assigned at birth. The discussion also included reference to a medical procedure she is planning to undergo, according to the complaint.

Staff at the school were notified of the discussion prior to it happening. Parents were not.

“Parents wish they had known before the announcement was made, so they could opt out or talk with their students before the district did, but they primarily just want to know details about what was told to their kids,” said Cory Brewer, who is representing Buchman.

After the discussion at Northstar Middle School, students at North High School and at least three elementary schools including Sam Davey Elementary, Locust Lane Elementary and Northwoods Elementary schools were read a statement regarding the teacher’s plans for gender-affirming surgery.

Buchman’s other two children are at North High School and Sam Davey Elementary School.

Buchman said the teacher’s decision to transition is not why she decided to sue the district. Her frustration started because her and the other parents were not told their children were going to be talked to about such a sensitive topic before it happened. And now, two months later, she still doesn’t know what was said.

“My kids did come home with questions, and I’m thinking how am I, as a parent, supposed to help them navigate this, still not having any information what was said?” Buchman said. “This, to me, is just a big reflection on how this was mishandled.”

Buchman emailed a band teacher at North High School and requested the statement. She received an email back saying he could not send it to her without district permission.

Buchman filed an open records request with the district. She received a letter dated June 12, after her open records request was filed, from Sven Strutz, an Eau Claire attorney, saying her request was denied.

“The District will be conducting an investigation to reconstruct the facts surrounding the event itself and the planning that would have taken place prior to the event (as well as determining whether any District policies may have been violated),” the letter states. “The fact that an investigation is pending does affect the handling of your public records request. Please note that the District is not saying that a public records request for the materials you seek can never be fulfilled—instead, it is saying that the request cannot be honored until such time as the investigation has been concluded.”

Officials at the Eau Claire Area School District echoed that statement on Tuesday.

“After the events of June 5 and the inquiries received from certain parents, it was decided that there should be a formal investigation of the events of that day (and the planning that preceded that day) to determine if there were any missteps under school district policy,” said a statement from the district to Wisconsin Public Radio. “With the summer season upon us, the investigation has encountered some issues with witness/employee availability. Work on the investigation is ongoing.”

Brewer said WILL is asking the court to require the district to produce the statement read to students.

“We believe this is exactly the type of record parents and taxpayers should have access to,” Brewer said. “Public schools are public entities subject to open records laws. Parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency, and they simply want to know what was told by the district to their children.”

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