Transgender third-grader files groundbreaking lawsuit against school

Nikki Shah-Brar wants to hold her school accountable to California's nondiscrimination law.

The Shah-Brar family. CREDIT: via the Los Angeles Times.
The Shah-Brar family. CREDIT: via the Los Angeles Times.

Heritage Oak Private Education, a private school in Yorba Linda, California, wouldn’t let 8-year-old Nikki Shah-Brar be herself. Now, her family is suing in hopes of preventing the school from traumatizing other trans kids like Nikki — and they’re using a fresh approach.

The lawsuit accuses Heritage Oak of violating the Unruh Civil Rights Act, California’s law banning discrimination in public accommodations. Though California courts have found that the law does not apply to private religiously affiliated schools, Heritage Oak is a private for-profit school. In their complaint, the family argues, “The Unruh Act applies to a for-profit school such as Heritage Oak and its parent company Nobel Learning Communities because Heritage Oak and Nobel Learning Communities are business establishments within the meaning of the statute.” The suit also accuses the school of falsely advertising itself as “non-discriminatory” and of causing Nikki emotional distress.

Despite repeated requests from Nikki’s parents, Priya Shah and Jaspret Brar, Heritage Oak refused to recognize Nikki as a girl, according to the complaint. She was required to wear a boy’s uniform, was referred to by a male name and pronouns, and was prohibited from using the girls’ bathroom. If she was not comfortable using the boys’ restroom, her only option was to use a separate staff restroom.

Phyllis Cygan, executive director of Heritage Oak, allegedly told Shah and Brar that the school couldn’t accommodate Nikki’s gender identity because it’s a “conservative institution” that focuses on “character education”, and that the transition would “create an imbalance in our environment.” Shah, who teaches about gender at the college level, said that if the family had known the school would fail to live up to its pro-diversity marketing, they wouldn’t have enrolled Nikki there in the first place.

Cygan’s own son was allegedly one of several students who bullied Nikki for her gender identity, leading her to feel socially isolated. But according to the complaint, Cygan claimed the school was “not in a position to dictate or
control other children or adult’s reactions, comments, etc.” At one meeting, Cygan even argued that the students’ conduct was not bullying because it wasn’t physical, and claimed that the comments about Nikki’s gender identity were not hurtful.

The school responded to the lawsuit by claiming that it was trying to respond “not hastily, but with deliberate care” to Nikki’s transition, according to a statement shared with the Los Angeles Times. Officials said they needed outside guidance to figure out how and when best to inform students about Nikki’s transition.

The family’s complaint also recounts how Nikki asked them about suicide because the school was blocking her “inner light.” It also includes photos of drawings she did for her therapist, which show her “light” being blocked and demonstrate how she feels about being able to dress as a girl.

CREDIT: Public Counsel
CREDIT: Public Counsel

Shah told BuzzFeed that the experience had been “devastating” for Nikki.

“This is not a trend, it’s not a fad, it’s not a phase,” she explained. “This is who she is at her very core, and if you can’t learn and grow at school, then you can’t be who you are. We stand with Nikki and we want to do our small part to make sure other transgender kids don’t have the same trauma.”