Rincon Middle School in Escondido is shown on May 25, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Attorneys representing Escondido Union officials in a federal lawsuit over the district’s gender identity policy are seeking to have the case dismissed. 

Rincon Middle School teachers Elizabeth Mirabelli and Lori Ann West filed the suit in late April alleging that the district’s policy, which protects a student’s gender identity from being disclosed, violates their First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion because they are required to “participate in the exclusion of parents from any decision-making regarding a child’s ‘social transition.’”

Why this matters

Escondido Union is one of many school districts across the nation that’s under fire for its policy on gender identity. Officials are pointing to state and federal law requirements in the legal fight.

But court documents filed last week by the San Diego-based Artiano Shinoff law firm defend the policy, arguing it does not require teachers to “lie” as the lawsuit alleges and that the rules are in line with state and federal laws. The firm is representing Superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra; Assistant Superintendent John Albert, board members Mark Olson, Frank Huston, Joan Gardner, Doug Paulson and Zesty Harper; Director of Integrated Student Services Trent Smith, Director of Integrated Student Supports Tracy Schmidt and Rincon Middle Principal Steve White. 

State officials, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, have also been named as defendants. Escondido Union — which has about 775 teachers and serves more than 17,000 elementary and middle school students in northern San Diego County — as a whole is not being sued.

In August 2020, administrators updated the district’s nondiscrimination and harassment policy without board approval or community input, according to the complaint. The new requirements included accepting a student’s “assertion” of gender identity; allowing them to keep their status private; providing a gender support plan; allowing them to access facilities and participate in programs that are consistent with their gender identity; addressing a student by their preferred name; and abiding by a student’s request to have their preferred name used on district-related documents.

Teachers were the only staff members ultimately trained on the new policy, according to the complaint.

Mirabelli and West, longtime educators who respectively identify as devout Roman Catholic and Christian, claim the new rules have caused them to experience anxiety, panic episodes and stomach pain due to stress.

Mirabelli took 17 sick days last fall because of the “extreme stress” and said she was being forced to deceive parents, the complaint said.

Escondido Union board members declined to comment on the suit, and Rincon Principal White did not respond to an inewsource request. In a statement earlier this month, however, the district said officials are observing all federal and state laws.

Rincon Middle School in Escondido is shown on May 25, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“The Escondido Union School District is committed to providing a safe and positive environment that enables our students to learn and actualize their unlimited potential and that empowers our teachers to excel as educators,” said Superintendent Rankins-Ibarra.

The district partly approved religious accommodations requested by Mirabelli and West, according to the complaint, allowing them instead to address all students by last name only regardless of gender identity status. But the teachers said they were still required to “modify their speech” if a parent asked about their child’s gender identity status. 

If a parent wanted them to reveal their child’s gender identity, the teachers were instructed to say that “the inquiry is outside the scope of the intent of their interaction” and that they can only talk about the student “as it relates to school, class rules, assignments, etc.,” according to the complaint.

District attorneys argue that state and federal laws promise all students an educational environment free from discrimination, ensure their right to privacy and require counselors to refrain from disclosing confidential information when there’s cause to believe that disclosure would pose a danger to the student.

Guidance from the California Department of Education also states that revealing a student’s gender identity or expression may compromise their safety and that their privacy is of the “utmost importance.” 

They also argue parents’ rights are not an issue in this case because Mirabelli and West are not speaking as parents, and directing them to decline answering a question that’s “not theirs to answer” is not a lie. 

The district has since approved Mirabelli’s request to be placed on paid administrative leave after experiencing what she says is harassment from students and other teachers. West, too, was placed on leave, though it was involuntary: She had originally declined an offer from the district because she said she wanted to participate in her students’ graduation.

Within days of filing the lawsuit, Mirabelli shared in court documents that students screamed at her, hung up posters in her classroom insinuating that she is sexist and racist, and called her homophobic. She said students told her that transgender children will die by suicide because of the lawsuit, with even one student claiming that his friend was going to jump off the top of the school’s physical education building. 

A letter addressed to Mirabelli by an anonymous source says the “whole class” has talked about the issue and believes that they deserve respect. 

“Just like you, we have feelings. And the way that you have handled the lawsuit situation is also absolutely unacceptable,” the letter states, adding that her actions have resulted in students switching out of her class.

Mirabelli alleged that other teachers at Rincon Middle circulated a video of about 20 students singing “This is Me,” a song from the musical “The Greatest Showman,” as some waved various small pride flags and one student ran back and forth with a large flag as a cape.

Some teachers are also showing support for the students by wearing pride and equality shirts, Mirabelli said.

Mirabelli and West are represented by the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based national Catholic Christian not-for-profit law firm that says it’s focused on defending “fundamental rights to life, family and freedom.”

This isn’t the first time that the Thomas More Society has filed a lawsuit involving California school policies. Lawyers associated with the firm sued the California Department of Education for allegedly including an Aztec prayer in its ethnic studies curriculum.

The group has also represented a childcare teacher who was fired after refusing to read LGBTQ books to her class because of her religious beliefs, and challenged San Diego Unified’s mandated COVID vaccine policy for not allowing religious exemptions.

Gender identity policies are being tested in states across the country. In Iowa, teachers were recently barred from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation issues with students below grade six and are required to notify parents when their child asks to change their pronouns or name.

Trustees of an Idaho school district are considering a similar policy applicable to all grades while some parents in Maryland fight for the right to know their child’s gender identity at school.

The Escondido teachers’ lawsuit has prompted reaction from the community, with nearly a dozen members of the public attending the district’s board meeting earlier this month. 

“All I’m asking you is, teach kids this stuff in high school, keep it out in middle school and keep it out of grade schools,” one grandparent to a child in the district pleaded to the board.

Molly Francis, a counselor at the district’s Hidden Valley Middle School, applauded the board for the policy, saying it saves the lives of these students.

“All California public school employees are required to protect LGBTQ student privacy, respect their identity and protect them from harm,” she said. “If an employee cannot adhere to these regulations, they should not be working in a public school setting.”

Both educators have asked for relief before the start of the following school year. A June 26 hearing has been scheduled before U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...