Students plan walkout in protest of lawsuit filed against HCPS


Kasey Thompson

Sophomore Addie McLeod holds a poster in support of the walkout. Students walked out of school and gathered to listen to speeches given by their peers November 1.

Silas Spears, Online Editor in Chief

Six adults, Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh, Timothy and Laura Nelson, and John and Nicole Stephen are suing Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) over a school district policy that allows for teachers to withhold students’ preferred name and gender pronouns from parents. The group of six claim their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion are being violated.

As said in the 2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools, teachers are required to ask students what their preferred name and pronouns are and are then required to use those moving on. If a student’s preferred name and pronouns are different from those given at birth, teachers are not required to communicate that preference to the student’s parents.

According to the lawsuit filed, “Public schools should never hide information from or lie to parents about a child’s mental health. And schools should never compel teachers to perpetrate such a deception. Yet Harrisonburg City Public Schools (“HCPS”) has done just that-implementing a policy and practice (“Policy”) on the treatment of transgender students that forces teachers on pain of discipline to use any pronouns or names requested by a student, while actively hiding information about that request from the child’s parents.”

Sophomore Shea Spears holds up a poster while attending the walk out in response to the lawsuit filed against HCPS. (Kasey Thompson)

In reaction to the lawsuit being filed, students and members of Harrisonburg High School’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) are holding a walk out. Senior Finn Maddox, a member of GSA, is helping take the lead and spread information on the walkout.

“It’s happening statewide. Schools across Virginia are walking out in support of pushing back against the lawsuit being filed against the school board. Essentially, parents are feeling like their rights to parent have been violated by having teachers have the right and requirement to keep preferred name and pronouns from parents if the student asked them to,” Maddox said. “Parents pushed back against that, and that is hurting a lot of people. Schools all over Virginia are walking out to protest the lawsuits going to court November 1. So we wanted to show our support and stand up for the LGBTQIA students in our community and just do everything we can to make it right.”

The original policy in place allowed for Maddox to feel safe through their journey of coming out to their school community before making their family aware of their identity. 

“I know when I first came out, I was going by a different name at school than I was at home because I knew I was safe. School was a safe space to be able to use my preferred name and pronouns with my friends and with teachers who I knew were supportive rather than my family, because it’s unfortunately common in the trans community for parents to be unsupportive. Home life can become really, really dangerous really quickly. So, luckily, everything for me turned out okay, but I know for a lot of other people it’s not. Since that bill, I’ve seen homophobia and transphobia in this school alone rise. I had a friend who was verbally and physically abused just a couple of weeks ago in the school for being openly gay and trans. I know people who if their teachers weren’t required to keep that confidentiality they would not be safe.”

GSA member and senior Nina Alabanza disagrees with the lawsuit being filed and hopes to show support for their fellow LGBTQIA peers.

“I think it sucks that there are some teachers that are just like, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go through the trouble of calling people by their preferred pronouns.’ It’s like it’s such a little thing that you can do to make a student’s life so much easier. Some teachers are being selfish about that. It is not a big deal [to call someone by] their preferred pronouns,” Alabanza said.

It’s like it’s such a little thing that you can do to make a student’s life so much easier. Some teachers are being selfish about that. It is not a big deal [to call someone by] their preferred pronouns.

— Senior Nina Alabanza

The school is required to present neutrality on the topic, teachers can’t encourage one side over the other. Because of this, students are the ones orchestrating the walk out. 

“The walk out is mainly orchestrated by the GSA. We’ve been meeting every Monday to plan this. We are making signs, and we are walking downtown to time it. [Sarah] Waldrop and [Seth] Berkeley are helping us with safety and they are the sponsors for GSA. They’re not officially allowed to endorse the walkout, because schools are required to stay neutral on the topic, so they’re not directly allowed to say ‘Yeah we’re going with you and teachers can come with you.’  They have to say they’re there for safety,” Maddox said.

Alabanza plans on participating in walking out with their peers. Alabanza is going against their views to walk out because of the importance that the issue holds to them.

Senior Finn Maddox gives a speech. Maddox, a member of the Gay Straight Alliance, helped plan the walkout. They met with GSA every week in October to ensure the walkout was a success. (Kasey Thompson)

“Right now I just really want to participate and I might speak, but I also just might be part of the crowd supporting the people that do speak. Personally, when there were walkouts in middle school, I never really did them because I’m also very big on we have an opportunity to be in public school, and be given a free education,” Alabanza said. “Walking out is kind of disrespectful to the school. But for this specifically, it’s like, why is this even happening? Why are they filing a lawsuit for this? If teachers are doing this at our school, I feel like we should be able to make a point. You know, like if they don’t respect us, maybe we won’t respect them. By doing this walkout it is an exception to my general views on walkouts.”

Waldrop and Berkeley are the GSA sponsors. Due to being staff and working in the HCPS system they are required to stay neutral on political topics. Although they are still allowed to support their students and peers. 

“I think it is important that students are able to use their First Amendment rights to express how they feel about policies that directly affect them. The walkout is a student-led effort to make sure that the school and community are aware of what is going on and a chance to give students the ability to have their voices heard,” Berkeley said.