Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Mother Takes School To Court Over Her Child's Name

Here's a case that shows everything hard and challenging about policies around LGBTQ students in school.

Michelle Landerer is suing the Dover Area School District in York County, PA over the gender identification of their child. The child had been previously diagnosed with PTSD, Conversion Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder and ADDl she already regularly saw a counselor selected by her mother.

In middle school, the student asked to be identified by a name and pronouns different from those assigned at birth. The child told the district that he did not want his mother to know about the change, and the district honored that request.

Landerer found out and told the teen that he could change his name when he was 18. The summer of 2022, the child confided with the private counselor that he thought he might be trans, leading to a series of discussions with Landerer, the counselor, and the child. The child told mom that he felt pressured by the school to stick with the name. Landerer herself sent off an email to the district:

(Teen’s legal name) is registered as (teen’s legal name) and I expect she will be addressed as such. NOT (Teen’s chosen name)... There is NO room for discussion about this matter and have discussed this with (teen’s therapist) as well so I am expecting there to be no confusion…

The 14-year-old told Landerer that he had told the district to use his birth name. Apparently what he actually told his teachers was to use his birth name in front of his mother and his chosen name the rest of the time. That secret did not last long. Said Landerer:

Even though they were well aware of my daughter's mental health issues and her educational disabilities, they took it upon themselves without my knowledge and without my consent to socially transition her and did this for an entire year without me knowing.

The lawsuit claims that the district interfered with Landerer's rights 

Defendant School Board and the individual members of the Board of Directors know or should know that the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States and Third Circuit, provide that the fundamental right to direct the care, custody, and control of children resides first in the parent and cannot be infringed by state actors absent a compelling state interest.

 Also, she charges that the school infringed on her freedom of religion and her beliefs, in part, that “human beings are created male or female by God and the natural created order regarding human sexual identity cannot be changed.” 

She would like the court to order that the district cannot treat students differently from their birth gender or use any other name for the child without prior written consent of a parent. She wants the court to out LGBTQ students to their families, and she wants a jury trial.

Landerer is represented by the Child and Parental Rights Campaign, a "nonprofit public-interest law fir founded to defend parents' rights to shield their children from the impacts of gender identity ideology." They do advocacy, legal representation, coordination, and activism. They offer a church transgender response guide: 

For too long churches have remained silent thinking they would be safe within their walls as our young people fall prey to an ideology that’s enticing them to reject God’s created order and harm their bodies by rejecting their sex, and as families are being torn apart.

The Georgia firm, founded in 2019, has scored huge grants from the National Christian Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, and the Alliance Defending Freedom. The Landerer case seems to be their one big get.

There's a lot going on here.

I sympathize with Landerer. It's a big shock when your child makes a life decision and leaves you completely out of the loop. It has to be a gut punch. 

But what does she hope to accomplish here? Is she really going to go to the mat in order to torch her relationship with her child in order to stand firm on her conservative pseudo-religious point? Because, while I obviously do not know the family dynamics involved, if Landerer's end game is to have a warm happy relationship with her child, this does not seem like the way to get there.

As with all such cases, one must also wonder where exactly the child's rights lie in all this. It doesn't seem hard to see why the child didn't want the news to get to Mom. Landerer is standing up for her parental right to have total control and direction over her child's life, but does the child have any rights to make choices for his own life? Can Landerer also take him to court if he won't wear a skirt? What if he insists on speaking with a low "male" voice instead of a high "girl" voice? What if he refuses to attend church services? The suit is over the district interfering with Landerer's rights to direct the child's life, but what if it's the child who interferes with those "rights" instead?

Which is the needle that must be threaded by every district caught in one of these cases. Where exactly is the line between the rights of the student and the rights of the parent? How does a school make the call when dealing with a student who has a host of issues that add up to "diminished emotional regulation" on top of being thirteen? How much freedom should a parent allow a child, and how much does the child need a firm guiding hand? And will hiring a right wing law firm that hopes to use your child to make a political and legal point help anything?

Okay, I know the answer to the last one.

But the rest are hard. This case, like the many similar instances across the country, presents a complex and difficult problem to sort out, yet these situations keep prompting simplistic answers.

The parents' rights always take first place and the school should always give control and information to the parent? The child is not chattel. The child has rights of their own, most notably the right to be safety, a right that the school is obligated to protect, even if the danger to the child is the parent. And certainly a right to define their own identity. LGBTQ students are particularly prone to being victims of abuse and being put out on the street. "The parent is always in the right" is not an answer.

The school should always follow the preferences of the child? They're a child, and the hope is always that the parents be in the loop. "Always leave the parents out of this" is a troubling default position for any school. And while a child has that right to define themselves, how much responsibility does the school have to play along? 

Schools that try to convince students to be LGBTQ would be way out of line-- if they existed. Likewise, asserting that all LGBTQ people are always wrong and deluded and sinful and demonic is not only unhelpful, but doesn't strike me as any sort of Christlike love and grace.

The absolute ideal is for parents, school staff, and children to sit down together, share, communicate, and figure out how best to move forward. There are many slices of rights and responsibilities at play in these cases, and no one size fits all policy solutions will actually fit all. I feel sad for everyone in this story, and I hope that other stories like it end up somewhere other than in a courtroom.


  1. The only thing that seems clear to me is, no wonder the poor kid has problems with a mother like that. I think she's committing psychological child abuse.

    1. Same, the mother seems really overbearing and her insistence on taking this to court instead of just… talking to her kid like a human being seems proof of that. As someone who was this kid at one point (and thankfully never got outed and will probably never come out to my mom) I don’t blame them for not wanting to tell their mom either; she seems like a headache and a half to deal with.