The parents of an eight-year-old transgender Indian American girl are suing Heritage Oak Private Education in Yorba Linda, Calif., alleging that school administrators discriminated against their daughter by forcing her to dress and identify as a boy.
“This is a fight for basic equal dignity, for our families and for all families – for a society that values things that unite us and the things that make us different,” said Priya Shah, mother of Nicole ‘Nikki’ Brar, in a press statement. “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,” said Shah.
“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,” said Jaspret Brar, Nikki’s father, in a press statement released by the Public Counsel law firm, which is representing the family.
According to the lawsuit – filed Aug. 2 in Orange County, Calif., Superior Court – Nikki Brar told her parents just before she turned seven that, though she was assigned to the male gender at birth, her true identity is that of a girl. “Mumma, I’m a girl. I want to be called a girl,” Nikki told her mother in June 2016. She later told her whole family that she had felt like a girl for a very long time.
Several studies have shown that children as young as three have preference for a gender identity that does not conform to their biological sex.
Nikki had always shown a preference for toys and clothing associated with girls. She would wear her mother’s high-heeled shoes, polish her toe-nails, and make gowns out of her grandmother’s dupattas. At age four, she told her mother she wished she was a girl, according to the lawsuit.
Shah and her husband Jaspret Brar, along with their older daughter, supported Nikki’s decision. The youngster began seeing a therapist who encouraged her parents to buy her girls’ clothes if she asked for them. Nikki told her parents that “boys’ clothes felt like a prison,” according to the lawsuit.
But at Heritage Oak School – run by the parent company Nobel Learning Communities, which is also named in the lawsuit – teachers and administrators allegedly refused to use the name Nikki, continuing to call the youngster by her birth name, and identifying her as “he.” The school also required Nikki to wear the boys’ uniform – shorts instead of a skirt – and to use the boys’ restroom. The school did offer to let Nikki use the staff bathroom, but only if she dressed like a boy.
She was also allowed to wear her hair long, but only if she wore the boys’ uniform, according to the suit.
The lawsuit alleges that Nikki experienced social isolation: the girls would not play with her because she had to dress like a boy, and she found the boys’ games too rough. Boys would bully the youngster, calling her “a loser.”
According to the lawsuit, after listening to a radio show in the car about the rise in suicide rates among college students, Nikki asked her grandmother: “what is suicide?” That evening, she asked her mother if she could “suicide herself” when she grew up, because “life is really hard.”
Nikki tore up a photo of herself dressed as a boy taken by her school, proclaiming: “I hate myself.” Her parents took her out of the school in February 2017, and home-schooled her for the rest of the year.
The lawsuit alleges that administrators at Heritage Oak told Nikki’s parents that the school is a “conservative institution,” which focuses on “character education.” Allowing Nikki to transition her gender at the school would “create an imbalance in our environment,” administrators allegedly told parents.
Shah and Brar showed evidence in their lawsuit, however, that Heritage Oak claims to be a progressive environment.
The lawsuit claims that Heritage Oak has violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a California state law that bans a variety of discrimination.
In a press statement, Heritage Oaks’ parent company Nobel Learning Communities said it has been able to accommodate the needs of older transgender students at its schools.
“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,” said the company, noting that it had called in an outside expert to help, and had allowed Nikki to use the single-unit staff bathroom.
The company also stated it had offered specific options to the girls’ uniform.
“We were communicating with the family on a consistent basis to discuss potential experts and specific accommodations. Unfortunately, these accommodations were rejected and the parents withdrew their child,” said Nobel Learning Communities in its statement.
The Public Counsel law firm noted in a press statement that Nikki now attends a public school in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. The school has worked with Nikki’s parents to ensure that the environment is safe and welcoming, and that Nikki is free of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, according to the law firm.
“This case is about the denial of basic respect and dignity,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, in a press statement. “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,” stated Rosenbaum.