Controversial Decision: Judge Rules on Gender Identity Clash in Wisconsin School District
A recent development in Wisconsin involves a state judge’s decision to invalidate a school district’s informal practice of acknowledging a student’s desire to transition to a different gender identity, including adopting a new name and pronouns, even when parental consent was lacking and despite parental objections.
This ruling is part of a larger context of legal disputes surrounding LGBTQ+ and gender identity matters within public schools. It is worth noting that there have been conflicting court decisions in recent times, including a federal appeals court decision that blocked a school district’s policy requiring respect for students’ gender identities. However, other courts have supported transgender students on various issues.
Judge Michael P. Maxwell, presiding over the Waukesha County Circuit Court, based his judgment on parents’ rights, citing the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause and the state constitution, which grant parents the authority to direct the upbringing of their children. He clarified that his decision primarily pertained to parents’ right to make medical and healthcare decisions for their children, rather than their right to control their children’s education.
Judge Maxwell emphasized the medical and healthcare aspect of the case, stating, “This is undisputedly a medical and healthcare issue.” He argued that the school district had gone against the parents’ wishes concerning the medical treatment of their child, which directly infringed upon parental autonomy in directing their child’s care.
The lawsuit originated from the actions of the parents of a student identified as “T.F.,” who, assigned female at birth, began questioning their gender identity at the age of 12 in 2020. The parents withdrew their child from the Kettle Moraine district and enrolled them in a mental health center, which affirmed their transgender identity and encouraged transitioning.
When T.F. was preparing to return to school, the parents communicated their opposition to an immediate gender transition and requested that the school continue to use T.F.’s legal name and female pronouns. The school principal, however, informed the parents that school staff would use the name and pronouns requested by the student, even if it conflicted with the parents’ wishes. Consequently, the parents withdrew T.F. from the school district, and T.F. later decided not to pursue a male transition.
The parents, along with another family, filed a lawsuit against the district with support from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national organization that has been involved in legal battles against transgender-supportive policies in schools and has asserted religious rights in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although their lawsuit cited parental rights under the Wisconsin Constitution, it also referenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions that uphold similar rights under the 14th Amendment.
In his decision to invalidate the district’s informal policy, Judge Maxwell considered affidavits from two physicians presented by the plaintiffs. These medical experts argued that it would be unwise to allow a child to have different gender roles at home and at school. They also asserted that no reputable medical organization had suggested that a school district should address a child’s “alternative gender identity without parental consent and agreement.”
Judge Maxwell stated, “The school district could not administer medicine to a student without parental consent…Likewise, the school district cannot change the pronoun of a student without parental consent without infringing on a fundamental liberty interest of the parents.”
The school district had defended its actions in part by expressing concerns that not respecting T.F.’s chosen name and pronouns could lead to a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded schools. However, Judge Maxwell noted that various guidance documents and a proposed formal regulation from President Joe Biden’s administration interpreting Title IX urged schools to respect transgender students’ gender identities. He mentioned that a federal district judge in Texas had blocked these informal guidance letters, and recent federal court rulings had not definitively established that a school district would breach Title IX by not recognizing a transgender student’s name and pronouns.
In response, Kettle Moraine Superintendent Stephen Plum stated that the district would continue to collaborate with all students, parents, guardians, and staff to clarify expectations. He emphasized the district’s respect for parents’ rights and noted that written parental consent would be required when using student names or pronouns that did not align with their sex at birth.
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