An 8-year-old transgender student and her parents are suing Heritage Oak Private Education school in Yorba Linda for alleged unlawful gender identity discrimination.
Brar v. Heritage Oak, which was filed Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court, claims Heritage Oak and its parent company Nobel Learning Communities violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which applies to all businesses in California, including a secular, for-profit private school.
Heritage and Nobel are accused of refusing to treat Nicole “Nikki” Brar in accordance with her gender identity, including denying her appeals to wear a girl’s uniform, rejecting repeated requests to be called by the appropriate name and pronouns, requiring her to use the boy’s restroom and barring her teacher from attempting to proactively prevent bullying and harassment.
“This is a fight for basic equal dignity, for our family and for all families—for a society that values the things that unite us and the things that make us different,” says Priya Shah, Nikki’s mother, in a statement from their lawyer. “I am forever in awe of the courage that it took for Nikki to stand up for who she is, despite all the messages she was getting from her school and from society. Her courage to fight for her authentic self has galvanized my own.”
“We couldn’t stand to watch Nikki’s hopes and dreams be crushed because a group of adults didn’t accept her for who she is,” adds Jaspret Brar, Nikki’s father. “What would you do as a parent? What would you do if your child were denied basic respect by their school? You’d act.”
“This case is about the denial of basic respect and dignity,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of pro bono firm Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project and lead counsel for the Shah Brar family. “When adults at a school think that they can dictate the name that a child goes by and demand she wear a boy’s uniform when she knows she’s a girl, that’s wrong. And that’s what happened at Heritage Oak. As a society, we can’t accept such discrimination from any quarter — least of all from a school seeking to deny the identity of one of its students.”
Heritage Oak provided a statement to the Weekly stating that it had communicated to the Brar family that it was retaining a consultant to carefully devise a strategy for dealing with not only a young transgender student but other classmates. The statement:
We strive to meet the needs and wellbeing of all children in our schools, and have been able to accommodate the needs of other transgender students in older grades at Nobel Learning Community schools without incident.
We were mindful in this instance of the need to support not just this 7-year-old, but other young children. We believed it was extremely important to respond, not hastily, but with deliberate care, to decide when and how to inform and educate our entire elementary school community of students, staff and parents about the mid-year change of gender identity expression of a young child. Due to the sensitivity of the issue and age of the child, we believed we needed expert guidance regarding timing (such as, preparing children for a change they would see in spring semester of second grade and fall semester of third grade), process and age-appropriate communication.
We told the family we had decided to retain an outside consultant to assist us, and we were communicating with the family on a consistent basis to discuss potential experts and specific accommodations (in addition to the other accommodations we had already offered, such as use of the single-unit staff bathroom, specific options as to girl’s uniform clothing and girl’s hairstyle, as well as ceasing to use gender groupings in physical education activities). Unfortunately, these accommodations were rejected and the parents withdrew their child.
Rosenbaum claims it was Nikki’s parents who repeatedly tried to work with the school to improve conditions and reach a solution for their daughter and all Heritage Oak students. The Shah-Brar’s were “rebuffed time and again,” according to the lawyer, who notes Nikki’s new public school in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District has been affirming of her gender identity and has worked closely with her parents to ensure a safe and welcoming environment, free of discrimination, bullying and harassment.
The complaint alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act; violation of the Business & Professions Code; and fraud or deceit. The plaintiffs seek: a declaration that the defendants violated the Unruh Act, the Business & Professions Code and California common law protections; written policies of non-discrimination toward all Nobel students; annual training for school staff and administrators on non-discrimination and anti-bullying; incorporation of transgender identity in curriculum; regular monitoring to ensure non-discrimination policies are being followed; and unspecified monetary amounts for punitive and compensatory damages and attorney fees.