The Department of Education (DOE) announced this week that it will investigate a complaint that a Georgia elementary school’s transgender-inclusive policy is somehow responsible for a five-year-old’s alleged sexual assault.
The complaint appears to just be the latest attempt by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, to undermine transgender nondiscrimination protections in schools.
According to ADF’s complaint, sometime last November, Pascha Thomas’ five-year-old daughter was using the restroom at Oakhurst Elementary School when one of her classmates pushed her against the toilet stall door and forcibly touched her genitals. Her complaint, filed this past May, describes the classmate as “a boy known to the school administration to identify as ‘gender fluid’.” The attack, the complaint asserts, was a “foreseeable result” of the Decatur City Schools’ policy respecting students according to their gender identity.
ADF alleged that the school dismissed Thomas’ complaint and even reported her to the Department of Family and Child Services as the actual person perpetrator of the assault on her daughter. ADF claims that this demonstrates how the school’s gender identity nondiscrimination policy creates an unsafe and hostile environment.
ADF is intentionally conflating Thomas’ allegations with its opposition to transgender equality. If Thomas’ daughter was assaulted and the school handled that poorly, she may very well have a legitimate complaint against the district. Even so, that would have nothing to do with the school’s policy respecting transgender students. ADF’s insistence on challenging nondiscrimination protections, however, casts significant doubt on the legitimacy of Thomas’ story.
Like many school districts across the country, the City Schools of Decatur (CSD) has had a nondiscrimination policy that includes “gender identity” for over a decade. In 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance stating that Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex,” also protects transgender students, which created a lot more public buzz about transgender students in schools. Before the 2016-17 school year, Superintendent David Dude emailed Decatur staff to remind them of the school’s longstanding nondiscrimination policy, including a basic outline about how to respect transgender students, such as letting them use restrooms that match their gender identity.
ADF’s complaint doesn’t reflect an understanding that Decatur’s policy was in place long before Obama’s guidance. It instead attempts to paint Dude as deceiving parents because in an interview two days before that email to staff, he said that many transgender students use “a faculty restroom or a referee’s restroom.”
ADF pontificates about how a federal court enjoined the Obama administration guidance and the Trump administration later rescinded it, even though Decatur’s policy predated all of those changes and was not impacted by any of them. Dude explained as much in a blog post following the Trump administration’s decision.
A little over a year ago, a group of anonymous parents calling themselves “Concerned Parents CSD” started a Change.org petition claiming that the “new guidelines” — reflecting school policy that had been in place for over a decade — were crafted “in the dark without input from, or accountability to, us as parents.” The petition called for changes to the policy such that when it comes to athletics, restrooms, and locker rooms, “anatomical sex must be the sole distinctive trait considered.” This, it insisted, was necessary to “protect the privacy, safety, and dignity of all students.”
Responding to this petition, the district invited a public discussion on how to treat transgender students at its October 2017 school board meeting. It is at this meeting that several of the players involved in ADF’s complaint first appear in the story. According to Decaturish, a local news site, only three members of the “Concerned Parents” coalition spoke: CSD parents Mark and Gena Major, and Vernadette Broyles, an attorney from Norcross, GA — 15 miles away. The Majors complained that the policy “is not considering parents’ rights and students’ rights” and bristled at comparisons between LGBTQ equality and the Civil Rights movement. When Broyles spoke, she regurgitated a false conservative talking point claiming that a Swedish study showed higher suicide rates for transgender people who have transitioned. She declined to confirm whether she represented the Majors.
While there were some others opposed to the policy, there was also broad support for transgender students at the meeting. The board said it would not change its policy, but it agreed to review it to see if more could be done to address “privacy” concerns inherent in some of the objections.
Decaturish attempted to determine who else were members of the parents group, but found few petition signers whose names had been made public. Indeed, many signers were from other cities or even from entirely different countries. Broyles also refused to answer questions from the publication about her relationship to the Majors or the district itself.
It was a month later when Thomas’ daughter was allegedly assaulted in a school restroom. As it turns out, Broyles is the ADF-allied attorney who later came to represent Thomas. And the Majors are still involved in the fight as well. Without explanation, they appear together along with Broyles in a polished ADF video in which Thomas recounts what she and her daughter experienced.
ADF’s complaint claims that CSD never undertook an investigation of the assault and that an administrator at Oakhurst Elementary even told Thomas that no one even questioned the student who allegedly attacked her daughter.
But according to Decaturish’s reporting, the school rejects this description of events and has the records to prove it. Indeed, Oakhurst said that several agencies did investigate the matter and determined that the complaint was unfounded.
This past January, for example, Lt. Jennifer Ross with the Decatur Policy Department confirmed that an investigator responded to the complaint the day Thomas brought it in. “Due to the suspect’s age, there will be no criminal prosecution regarding the incident,” she explained. “Referrals were made to the Department of Family and Children’s Services.”
In February, Oakhurst’s principal sent the following email to parents [emphasis added]:
It has come to my attention that a rumor is circulating regarding an alleged incident at Oakhurst Elementary. The rumor purports that one student assaulted another student in a restroom this fall. Although an incident was alleged, a thorough investigation involving Oakhurst administration, central office staff, law enforcement, and social service agencies led us to confidently determine that the allegation was unfounded.
I can imagine how alarming such a rumor would be to anyone who might have heard it and for those of you hearing this now for the first time. I can assure you that we have a strong plan in place that keeps our students’ safety as our top priority. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please contact me directly. Thank you.
Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the student alleged to have been part of this incident even identifies as “gender fluid,” as the complaint asserts. Deacturish reports that district officials have said that the student accused of the assault is male and does not identify as transgender or gender fluid.
Courtney Burnett, a spokeswoman for CSD, responded to the complaint with a brief statement rejecting the allegations. “We are aware of the unfounded allegations made by the Alliance Defending Freedom,” she said. “We fully disagree with their characterization of the situation and are addressing it with the Office of Civil Rights.”
In its response to the complaint, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), agreed to investigate multiple legal issues. This included ADF’s specific complaint that “implementation of the [gender identity nondiscrimination] Policy contributed to creation of a hostile environment for the Student and other girls.”
This is a conspicuous reflection of the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ bias, particularly in light of what the OCR has refused to investigate. Not only did the administration rescind the Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students, the DOE has also refused to handle complaints from transgender students who claim that they have experienced discrimination in their schools. In February, the Department explicitly confirmed that any complaint from a transgender student related to bathroom access would be universally rejected.
Since ADF announced OCR’s investigation Wednesday, conservative sites have begun to crow that Thomas’ story confirms the widely-debunked myth that transgender equality is somehow a threat to others’ safety. ADF attorney Christina Holcomb, who is representing Thomas along with Broyles, told the Federalist, “I’m not sure why they’re discounting her account of this assault other than that it is contrary to the narrative that they want to push about the transgender restroom policies.”
But besides the conflicting accounts from the school, there is every reason to be suspicious of ADF’s motives. ADF has been party to countless suits across the country in which it has attempted to challenge schools’ nondiscrimination protections by manufacturing injury on behalf of parents and students. For example, in a suit challenging a policy at a Pennsylvania school, ADF produced a similar polished video featuring a student who claimed she felt unsafe around a transgender student, even though nothing even happened to her. (Holcomb is coincidentally also counsel to that case.) In another suit challenging a Minnesota school’s protections, ADF attempted to demonize a transgender student simply for the way she danced in the locker room before track practice.
If Thomas’ account is completely true and her daughter was assaulted but the school tried to pin it on her instead, then both she and her daughter deserve justice, and perhaps the OCR investigation will provide that. But ADF is clearly using her story to once again “cry wolf” against a policy of transgender inclusion that is in no conceivable way responsible for what may have happened.
The DOE under President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos has concluded that Title IX doesn’t protect transgender students, but this investigation suggests it might be willing to go further and actually conclude that Title IX precludes respecting transgender students according to their gender identity.
If the administration conspires with ADF to tip the scales against schools with inclusive policies, it could have devastating consequences for transgender students across the country.