Nikki Shah-Brar came out to her family as a transgender girl in June 2016. Her parents were supportive from the start and happy for her come out at her private school. But her school wouldn’t address her as a girl or allow her to use the girls’ restroom. So on Wednesday, her parents announced they are suing for discrimination.
According to Shah-Brar family, administrators at Heritage Oak Private Education in Yorba Linda, California, were initially open to talk about Nikki’s gender identity, but by January 2017, they gave a hardline response: Nikki would be treated like a boy, not a girl, on campus. She would not be allowed to properly express her gender.
“They said that we could grow her hair out,” father Jaspret Brar told BuzzFeed News. “But they said no girls bathroom, no female pronouns, no girls name, and no girls uniform.”
The lawsuit claims that Heritage Oak and its parent company, Nobel Learning Communities, are discriminating against Shah-Brar on the terms of her gender identity, therefore causing emotional harm to the young girl and engaging in fraudulent business practices.
“Nikki would have to wear the boy’s uniform, use a boy’s name and pronouns, and use the staff restroom,” Heritage Oak executive director Phyllis Cygan said, the complaint alleges. “She said that Heritage Oak is a ‘conservative institution’ that focuses on ‘character education’ and that allowing Nikki to transition would ‘create an imbalance in our environment.'”
Shah-Brar has since left the school after being bullied by her peers and supports her family’s decision to sue the school.
“We would not have done it if she didn’t support it,” mother Priya Shah said to BuzzFeed. “This was a family decision. We thought we had to stand up for our child who was standing up for who she was. This is not something we do lightly.”
Under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, the state government outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex and gender orientation in business matters. The family’s lawsuit also alleges that the school violated the California Business and Professions Code, because, by denying Nikki Shah-Brar’s gender identity, the school was actively hurting her “sense of self-worth” and educating the “whole child.” Heritage Oak advertised that both qualities would be fostered in the school.
“Given that Trump and the Justice Department have turned their back on the discrimination of transgender individuals, it’s important to put the word out there that this sort of discrimination is actionable in every state in the nation,” Mark Rosenbaum, one of several lawyers on behalf of the family from the legal organization Public Counsel, told BuzzFeed.
Transgender discrimination lawsuits against private schools are particularly rare in the U.S.; most cases deal with public school discrimination. Some cities and states have since taken steps to protect trans students, though. New York City specifically requires teachers to honor their trans students’ pronouns, and allows children to be referred to by their preferred name without parental consent.