Respect Equality

A Wisconsin school district policy preventing staff from outing trans students will stay in effect for now, court rules

The policy will remain enforceable while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is fought in a lower court.
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Story at a glance

  • The Madison Metropolitan School District may continue enforcing its policy preventing school officials from disclosing a transgender student’s identity to their parents without the student’s permission, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday.

  • The school district’s policy was first challenged in 2020 by a group of anonymous parents.

  • Staff under the policy are required to receive permission from a student before using their chosen name or new pronouns in communication with their family.

A Wisconsin school district may continue enforcing a policy that prevents school officials from disclosing a student’s decision to change their pronouns or name without the student’s consent while the policy is debated in a lower court, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said Friday.

The policy of the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) had been challenged by seven sets of anonymous parents in a complaint filed in 2020 by the conservative legal groups Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

Attorneys for both groups argued that the school district’s policy infringes on the constitutional rights of parents by withholding information about their children from them and forces students to participate in a “grand experiment.”

“Parents have a right to decide whether they want their children to be part of this experiment or not,” an attorney for WILL told ABC-affiliate WKOW in Madison in May, adding that the policy treats children “as if they’re the opposite sex.”

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Under the school district’s policy, adopted in 2018, if a student chooses to use a different name, begins socially transitioning or discloses their gender identity to their classmates or teachers, school staff are not authorized to disclose that information to the student’s family.

The policy acknowledges that transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming youth may risk losing emotional or financial support from their families by revealing their gender identity or sexual orientation.

For that reason, all staff are required to refer to students using the name and gender documented in the school’s internal system when communicating with family members unless they have been given permission by the student to do otherwise.

“This might involve using the student’s affirmed name and pronouns in the school setting, and their legal name and pronouns with family,” the policy reads.

On Friday, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, writing for the majority, said the school district could continue enforcing the policy while the case moves forward in the lower courts and rejected a request from the plaintiff parents to keep their identities concealed from opposing counsel.

The parents had argued that they would likely be subject to “threats and intimidation” should their names become known.

“The Court’s decision today allows MMSD to continue to protect youth by allowing them to be who they are without fear of being outed against their will, providing them with the freedom and safety to explore their identity on their own terms,” Chris Donahoe, staff attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said Friday in a statement.

“Young people have various reasons for delaying sharing aspects of their identities with their parents – some are not ready, some may fear rejection, condemnation, or worse – whatever the reason may be, it should be respected,” she said.

In a dissenting opinion, however, Justice Patience Drake Roggensack wrote that the state Supreme Court had abdicated its responsibility by “choosing not to address the critical issue on which this case turns: the constitutional right of parents to raise their children as they see fit.”