Court rules in favor of district in student privacy case

On July 10, Judge John A. Mendez of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California issued a decision in favor of Chico Unified School District in the case of Regino v. Staley, which involves a parent’s challenge to a school district administrative regulation that aims in part to protect student privacy rights. Judge Mendez ordered that the complaint filed against Chico USD be dismissed with prejudice.

Regino, the mother of a fifth-grade student, learned that her daughter had confided in a counselor that she felt like a boy and was using a different name and pronouns at school. Based on the district’s Administrative Regulation (AR) 5145.3 – Nondiscrimination/Harassment, the counselor encouraged the student to share this information with family members but did not inform the student’s mother when the student began using the preferred name and pronouns. The student eventually told her grandmother, from whom Regino then found out about her daughter’s social transition. Regino filed a lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction to stop all district employees from “socially transitioning” her child and any other students in the district without parental consent. The court denied the motion for preliminary injunction and the mother’s remaining claims moved forward.

Claims made

Regino’s complaint against the district included six claims under the federal Constitution related to her parental rights. She argued that AR 5145.3 violated her constitutional rights based on the substantive and procedural due process clauses in the 14th Amendment (facially and as applied) and the First Amendment (facially and as applied). In relation to substantive due process, Regino argued that because she was not notified of her child’s social transition at school, she was unable to make important medical decisions for her child and unable to make other important decisions for her child, such as the use of her child’s name and pronouns by school employees. As to procedural due process, Regino argued that AR 5145.3 violated her fundamental parental rights and, in the alternative, because her parental rights are closely related to other fundamental rights, due process protections were triggered.

Regino’s First Amendment argument claimed that AR 5145.3 violated the right of familial association (a claim also available under the 14th Amendment) by interfering with her “intimate family relationship with her daughter.” As summarized by the court, Regino argued that the regulation “drives a wedge into the parent-child relationship and denies Plaintiff the ‘opportunity to counter influences’ on her children with which she disagrees.”

Analysis by the court

The court analyzed each claim made by Regino and summarized that “the issue before [the] court is not whether it is a good idea for school districts to notify parents of a minor’s gender identity and receive consent before using alternative names and pronouns, but whether the United States Constitution mandates such parental authority.” The court went on to analyze all the claims, finding in each circumstance that Regino failed to allege sufficient facts or provide any legal precedent to demonstrate that AR 5145.3 was unconstitutional. In other words, the court found that there is no established constitutional right for a parent to be notified when their child socially transitions at school or that a parent must provide their consent before a student may socially transition at school.

The court also found that the “interference” cases cited by Regino, including the wrongful imprisonment of a parent, the molestation of a child by a school resource officer, and school officials compelling student athletes to take pregnancy tests, bore “no resemblance to the instant case.” In dismissing the complaint and upholding the contested provisions of AR 5145.3 as constitutional, Judge Mendez concluded that the right of familial association to require parental consent prior to a child transitioning at school, as proposed by Regino, “had not been recognized in the context of the instant case.”

The court emphasized that without precedent and controlling legal authority to support the expansion of parental rights as pled by the plaintiff, courts do not have “open-ended lawmaking powers” and “the legislature is best suited to address [Regino’s] concerns.” Judge Mendez reached a similar conclusion about the plaintiff’s policy arguments being “best suited for deliberation by the legislature” in his order denying the motion for preliminary injunction in March for failing to show she was entitled to such relief.

One of the four factors that a plaintiff must demonstrate to obtain equitable relief is that their motion is in the “public interest.” (Winter v. NRDC, 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008).) The court’s discussion of the “valid concerns” raised by both parties when arguing whether the contested provisions of AR 5145.3 are in the public interest, is indicative of the difficulty many have, including jurists, when considering whether to support the primacy of a parent’s relationship with their child or to protect the privacy interests of students when they are at school. The language from the court’s analysis on that factor is below:

Plaintiff argues that it is always in the public interest to prevent the violation of a party’s constitutional rights; in this instance, Plaintiff [argues that] the Regulation violates her parental rights, so it is in the public interest to grant her injunctive relief. Plaintiff also claims that the injunction will benefit all children and parents in the district by protecting the intimate trust of the parent-child relationship and reducing the psychological harm to children who express different gender identities at home and school.

Defendants argue that there is no public interest to promote when parents seek to gain unfettered access to information about their child’s gender identity, regardless of the wishes of the student, nor is there a public interest in a parent forcing their own beliefs on gender on their child against their will. To the contrary, [Defendants argue that] there is an interest in creating a zone of protection at schools in the rare circumstances where the disclosure of a child’s gender expression at school could lead to harm from within their family.

Considering the Court’s disposition on the other Winter factors, it is not swayed one way or the other regarding the public interest. Both parties raise valid concerns. It is not necessarily a school’s duty to act as an impenetrable barrier between student and parent on intimate, complex topics like gender expression and sexuality, particularly when students can be as young as 5 years old. On the other hand, granting parents unimpeded access to and control over a student’s personal life can result in conflict that makes students feel vulnerable and unsafe both at home and at school, depending on their parents’ personal beliefs. Citations omitted.

Discussion of AR 5145.3 – Nondiscrimination/Harassment

In its analysis, the court found that rather than the contested provisions of AR 5145.3 interfering with a parent’s fundamental right “to make decisions regarding the care, custody and control” of their children, the district had “demonstrated a legitimate state interest in creating a zone of protection for transgender students and those questioning their gender identity from adverse hostile reactions, including, but not limited to, domestic abuse and bullying; this is in line with the Regulation’s general purpose to combat discrimination and harassment against students.” Even without the expansion of parental rights as argued by Regino, using the rational basis test, Judge Mendez still could have found AR 5145.3 unconstitutional if there was not a legitimate state interest to support the student consent provisions. Nonetheless, Judge Mendez found that regulations such as AR 5145.3 that provide students with a zone of protection created by student consent are legally permissible.

The court also noted that AR 5145.3 was reactive and not proactive regarding a student’s gender identity as district staff “are not directed to force students to adopt transgender identities or keep their identities secret from their parents [as] nothing in the Regulation prohibits or discourages students and their parents from associating with each other.” Moreover, AR 5145.3 does not discourage students from interacting with their parents and recommends that students disclose their gender identity to family members whenever possible and “on their own terms.”

Regino appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on July 20, 2023, and any decision reached by that court could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  For more information about parent and transgender and gender nonconforming student rights, please visit CSBA’s Recently Asked Questions.