A California school district has paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit over administrators' alleged support for a student's gender transition, which purportedly unfolded without the knowledge of the child's mother, according to court documents.
The Spreckels Union School District, about 60 miles south of San Jose, agreed to the payout in June, about a year after the mother, Jessica Konen, filed the suit. The lawsuit alleged that the district and three of its employees "secretly convinced" Konen's child that the minor was bisexual and transgender and encouraged the student to conceal it from Konen, allegedly violating her 14th Amendment rights to direct her child's upbringing.
A federal judge approved the settlement last month and later ordered the case dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
The settlement is a compromise between the parties and does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing, specifically stating that the defendants deny any liability.
An independent investigation the school district commissioned by a law firm last year found that the teachers named in Konen’s lawsuit did not “coach” students in changing their gender identities or deceive administrators or parents.
The executive summary of the investigation — which was based on more than 1,600 pages of documents and interviews with 21 witnesses — is no longer available on the school district’s website, but NBC News viewed an archival copy of it.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Monterey County Superior Court in June 2022, before it was moved to U.S. District Court for Northern California three months later. It names as defendants the school district, along with the principal and two teachers at Buena Vista Middle School in Salinas, where the child attended from the fall of 2018 until the spring of 2021. The complaint demanded a jury trial, attorneys’ fees, more than $25,000 in damages and a declaration that the defendants violated the plaintiff’s rights.
In a statement provided to NBC News, one of Konen's lawyers, Harmeet Dhillon — a Republican Party official and the founder of the Center for American Liberty, a conservative legal nonprofit group — said "Konen’s triumph strongly underscores the principle that parents, not schools, have a natural right to shape their child’s upbringing."
"This settlement sends a loud message to all school districts: attempting to secretly transition a child without parental notification or consent will lead to substantial repercussions," Dhillon said.
Representatives of the school district and attorneys for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
LGBTQ advocates push back
The case is the latest example of how anti-LGBTQ sentiment is manifesting, in part, through the nation's schools, where conservative activists have sought to ban books with LGBTQ themes and classes with LGBTQ content. Republicans have also floated a national version of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act — which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — in an effort to restrict LGBTQ-related programs. The Florida law also inspired the introduction of similar legislation in other states: As students head back to school in the coming weeks, more than 30 new LGBTQ-related education laws will take effect in 17 states unless they are blocked in court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Research has shown that supportive school environments that include positive representations of LGBTQ people and acknowledge LGBTQ issues in curricula can reduce suicide risk for LGBTQ youths, who already face higher rates of suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual peers, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on supporting LGBTQ young people.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta referred to that context after he filed a lawsuit Monday arguing that a new policy approved last month by the Chino Valley Unified School District's Board of Education infringes on LGBTQ students' civil rights by requiring teachers to notify parents if their children identify as transgender in school or use names or pronouns different than what is on their birth certificates.
“The forced outing policy wrongfully endangers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of non-conforming students who lack an accepting environment in the classroom and at home,” Bonta, a Democrat, said in a statement.
In court filings in December, an LGBTQ youth advocacy organization, the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network, made similar allegations about the Konen case. The group argued that the Spreckels Union School District's policy to respect students' wishes about whether or not to disclose information about their sexual orientations or gender identities to their parents was in compliance with state law, which requires school officials to affirm LGBTQ students’ identities and strongly suggests that “teachers privately ask transgender or gender nonconforming students at the beginning of the school year how they want to be addressed in class, in correspondence to the home, or at conferences with the student’s parents.”
"To undermine these policies would be to critically undermine the support and the safety of LGBTQ+ youth," the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network said in its filing.
Enduring impacts for the minor
Konen's lawsuit alleges that Buena Vista Middle School adopted a policy to "keep certain information about students’ gender identity and expression secret from parents" unless the students granted permission for their parents to be informed, which the complaint alleges was a way of "affirming students’ gender confusion."
The complaint says Konen's child attended the Equality Club, an LGBTQ affinity group run by the teachers, "at the invitation of a friend" upon starting at the school in the fall of 2018. The complaint alleges the teachers “coached” students in how to express LGBTQ identities through the club, claiming they would “introduce and push identities on students, and the students resisted.”
In the spring of 2019, Konen's child went to counselors at the school "complaining of depression and stress" and began having weekly counseling sessions in which a counselor and one of the teachers who ran the Equality Club said the child's mental and emotional struggles were due to “not being who she was," according to the complaint.
Konen alleges in the complaint that the teachers concealed from her that they were referring to the minor by a new name and a new set of pronouns and letting the minor use a gender-neutral bathroom typically reserved for teachers.
The complaint also alleges the teachers encouraged Konen's child to assume a boy's name and wear boys' clothing, provided the minor with articles about gender transition, instructed the minor how to bind breasts and "not to tell her mother about her new gender identity or new name, saying that her mother might not be supportive of her and that she couldn’t trust her mother."
In the fall of 2019, the complaint alleges, one of the teachers advised the minor not to talk to Konen about gender identity after the child floated the possibility of telling Konen. That December, the school's principal called Konen, the child and one of the teachers to meet to discuss the child's gender identity. The complaint claims Konen was "taken aback" by the news and worried the child would be taken from her custody.
Konen nevertheless supported the child by authorizing the school attendance notes to state that the child was "also known as" the assumed name the minor had been using, according to the complaint, which alleges that the teachers also changed the child's name in formal records, including progress reports, report cards and a school email address.
Once the school began remote learning a few months later, in March 2020, because of the pandemic, the child "began to return to her original self," the complaint says.
In the fall of 2021, the minor began school in a new district, using a female name and pronouns, according to the complaint.
But, the lawsuit says, the events at Buena Vista Middle School have "seriously damaged" the mother and child's relationship, and the child "is confused about issues relating to her sexuality and gender," which the complaint blames on the teachers and the school district.
Trans Lifeline is a peer phone service run by trans individuals for other trans individuals who are in need of emotional support. The hotline can be reached at 877-565-8860. More resources are available at translifeline.org.
The Trevor Project offers a 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention hotline for LGBTQ youth and their loved ones. Call 1-866-488-7386, text START to 678-678 or send a confidential instant message to a counselor through TrevorChat. More resources are available at thetrevorproject.org.