Mother backed by anti-trans legal group sues New York school over parental notification policy

The Skaneateles Central School District is located at 45 East Elizabeth Street in Skaneateles.
The Skaneateles Central School District is located at 45 East Elizabeth Street in Skaneateles.

A mother represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a far-right anti-LGBTQ legal group, filed a federal lawsuit against a public school in upstate New York on Jan. 31 accusing the school of violating her constitutional rights by failing to notify her when her child started to transition.

New York State policy protects LGBTQ students and a New York State Education Department guidebook from 2023 states that a school’s “acceptance of a student’s asserted gender identity should require no more than a statement from the student expressing their preference.” Schools, the guidebook states, “do not need to require permission, letters from professionals, or other proof of gender identity.”

But none of that stopped ADF from jumping on the side of a mother, Jennifer Vitsaxaki, whose child attended the school district in Skaneateles, New York — just west of Syracuse — from 2017 until 2021 when Vitsaxaki withdrew the child from the school amid her concerns over the school’s refusal to inform her about her child’s apparent transition. Vitsaxaki filed the suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York claiming that the school violated Vitsaxaki’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the US Constitution — particularly her “sincerely held religious beliefs and her parental rights.”

The lawsuit is laced with transphobic language and false claims about transgender individuals, including assertions that an increase in youth with gender dysphoria is part of some trend with unknown causes, and it casts doubt on any studies showing improvements in mental health following social transition, saying that research suffered from “severe methodological defects.”

Most of the lawsuit, however, focuses on the school’s alleged refusal to inform Vitsaxaki about her child’s gender identity.

“Not one School District employee notified Mrs. Vitsaxaki or sought her consent before socially transitioning her daughter,” the lawsuit states. However, the state’s education guidebook also says students “are not required to obtain parental/guardian consent or a court-ordered name and/or gender change before being addressed by their affirmed name and pronouns.”

A spokesperson for the school district did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the afternoon of Jan. 31.

Vitsaxaki’s lawsuit claims she reached out to the school to ask if they noticed anything troubling about her child because she sought to understand why the child was struggling with anxiety and depression. While she said the school kept telling her there was nothing to report, she said her child was meeting with a school counselor.

“The same counselor instructed school staff to treat Mrs. Vitsaxaki’s daughter as though she were a boy by referring to her with a boy’s name and the third-person plural pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them,'” the lawsuit states. In early 2021, Vitsaxaki’s child asked staff at school to call them a different name and pronouns.

Eventually, the lawsuit says, a staff member at the school “could no longer stomach the School District’s deception of Mrs. Vitsaxaki and urged the principal to come clean.”

The suit added: “When he finally did, Mrs. Vitsaxaki was shocked. She and her husband, Jane’s father, met with the School District. They directed the School District to stop taking any further action without their consent and sought open communication with the teachers to understand what had happened. But the principal told them School District policy required employees to deceive them, and despite assurances to the contrary, the deception continued.”

Vitsaxaki then removed her child from the school and the child started going to an online school in May of 2021 before enrolling in a private school.

“Parents, not the government, have the right to direct the upbringing, education, and health care of their children,” ADF senior counsel Kate Anderson, director of ADF’s Center for Parental Rights, said in a written statement. “Parents should be able to drop their kids off at school without fear that school staff will conceal critical information or cut them out of weighty decisions with the potential for life-long impact on their kids. The Skaneateles Central School District policy in this lawsuit betrays the trust of parents like Mrs. Vitsaxaki and violates their fundamental rights. Not only that, it violates Mrs. Vitsaxaki’s right to exercise her Christian faith by raising her daughter consistent with her sincerely held religious beliefs about human nature, gender, and identity, among other topics. Because school officials concealed their actions from Mrs. Vitsaxaki, they prevented her from helping her daughter at a time she needed her mother’s loving guidance most.”

The lawsuit echoes other efforts to force schools to out students to their parents, including in Florida, where the so-called Don’t Say Gay or Trans law bars school districts from adopting procedures barring school personnel from notifying parents about information pertaining to their children. ADF is filing similar lawsuits elsewhere, such as in Michigan, where ADF attorneys say a middle school student did not inform a student’s parents about their transition and “took steps to conceal its actions.”