Metro Weekly

8-year-old trans student sues California private school for gender identity discrimination

Student's legal team argues private schools must comply with California's nondiscrimination laws

An 8-year-old transgender student from California is suing a private school that she previously attended for discriminating against her on the basis of her gender identity. 

Nikki Brar and her parents Priya Shah and Jaspret Brar, of Orange County, Calif., claim that Heritage Oak Private Education and its parent company, Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act when it refused to treat Nikki according to her gender identity. Examples of this treatment included refusing to allow her to wear a girls’ uniform, be referred to by female pronouns, forcing her to use the boys’ restroom, and preventing her teacher from proactively preventing bullying and harassment. 

Brar’s lawyers, with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, argue that, as a secular, for-profit private school, Heritage Oak is bound by the same nondiscrimination laws that apply to all businesses in California. Because the Unruh Civil Rights Act protects people from discrimination based on gender identity, the school had no right to force Nikki to use the boys’ bathroom, dress in boys’ clothes, or refer to her using male pronouns.

“This case is about the denial of basic respect and dignity,” Mark Rosenbaum, the director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project and lead counsel for the Shah Brar family, said in a 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.”

The Shah Brar family claims that not only did Nikki face severe emotional damage, but so did her family, including her older sister. They claim that they repeatedly approached the school to reach a resolution regarding how Nikki was treated, but the school was unwilling to compromise.

In contrast, the local public school district that Nikki now attends has been affirming of her gedner identity and has worked closely with her parents to ensure that she is protected from discrimination, bullying, or 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,” Priya Shah said in a 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.”

The lawsuit against Heritage Oak also accuses the school and its parent company of violating California’s Business and Professional Code, which prohibits unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business practices and unfair, deceptive, untrue, and misleading advertising. By advertising itself as a school that works to “develop the whole child” and provides students with a “warm, nurturing environment,” Heritage Oak misled the Shah Brar family and then reneged on their promise when they refused to recognize Nikki’s gender identity.

“Who we are, the name and pronouns we go by and the gender associated with the clothing we are comfortable wearing are the emanations of what seven-year-old Nikki correctly called our inner light,” Rosenbaum said in a statement. “Heritage Oak did not just go back on its representation to provide a ‘non-discriminatory and individualized education’ — it went back on its representation that it had what it takes to be a school.”

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