Metro Weekly

Prince George’s County Settles Trans Teacher’s Discrimination Suit

Jennifer Eller was verbally and physically harassed by students, parents, and co-workers while district officials failed to stop the abuse.

Jennifer Eller – Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal.

Prince George’s County Public Schools has agreed to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender teacher who claimed she suffered years of “pervasive and severe” verbal and physical threats and attacks because of her gender identity.

Jennifer Eller, who taught English at three schools in the county from 2008 to 2016, claimed in her lawsuit that she suffered years of harassment, abuse, and retaliation at the hands of school administrators, fellow teachers, staff, parents, and students after she came out and began living authentically as a transgender woman. Yet despite filing multiple reports complaining about these incidents, administrators and district officials took little to no action and ignored Eller’s complaints.

As part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in monetary damages, and has agreed to adopt or strengthen policies and training aimed at preventing harassment and protecting transgender individuals from discrimination. Those policies, training, and administrative procedure changes include, but are not limited to, workplace anti-bullying policies, social media policies, student behavior interventions, transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, anti-harassment policies, and procedures to support inclusive environments for LGBTQ individuals.

The Prince George’s County Board of Education also agreed, as part of the settlement agreement, to maintain those policies and adopt inclusive training protocols including “Safe Schools” and “Welcoming Schools,” the latter of which is a program developed by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

“I’m relieved to see this case finally come to a resolution and satisfied to see that our case led to the adoption of these policy changes and training protocols to improve the school environment for everyone, including LGBTQ+ students and teachers,” Eller said in a statement. “This settlement vindicates my pleas for help and sensitivity training on LGBTQ+ issues for students and staff.

“Every student and every teacher should feel safe, welcomed, and respected in a school environment,” Eller added. “I am hopeful that with the new policy and training changes adopted by the Board of Education in response to my case, there are now strong measures to prevent and address discrimination or harassment towards transgender staff or students.”

Eller, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Minnesota State University, began working at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover in 2008. Three years later, she informed the principal at Kenmoor that she would be transitioning, but when she began to present as a woman, she was subjected to verbal abuse from students and was instructed by school administrators to stop wearing skirts or dresses. 

Eller later transferred to Friendly High School in Fort Washington in 2011, but became the target of verbal and physical harassment for wearing traditionally feminine attire. Fellow co-workers demanded she present as “male,” dismissing a therapist’s note as “garbage.” Students shouted transphobic slurs at her and she was repeatedly misgendered and threatened. When she reported these incidents to her superiors, they ignored her complaints.

In June 2015, Eller filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found, two years later, that there was “reasonable cause’ to believe that Eller had been discriminated against based on both her sex and gender identity, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After she filed that complaint, school administrators retaliated against Eller by taking away her advanced placement English class and opening a disciplinary hearing against her that ended in no discipline.

In 2018, enlisting the help of Lambda Legal and the law firm Arnold & Porter, Eller sued Prince George’s County Public Schools, claiming the school system had violated her rights under Title VII, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and state and county nondiscrimination laws.

In January 2022, U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang, of the District of Maryland, denied the Prince George’s County Board of Education’s request for judgment prior to trial, finding that “the fact that harassment of Eller continued unabated despite her complaints for multiple years across three different schools illustrates that the record supports the conclusion that Defendants had not taken measures reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”

Chuang also found there was sufficient evidence to go to trial on Eller’s claims that administrators created a hostile work environment, led her to transfer schools due to that environment, and retaliated against her for complaining about the discrimination and harassment she faced. The school board subsequently decided to settle the case.

“Public schools should be safe havens where we prepare the leaders of tomorrow and where all are welcome regardless of background or identity. No person should have to endure the relentless harassment, threats, and even violence that are outlined in Jennifer Eller’s complaint,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, counsel at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. 

“Transphobia and harassment have no place in the workplace or in our schools. We are gratified that we have been able to vindicate Jennifer Eller’s rights and hopeful that with this settlement we will be able to prevent having any transgender person at Prince George’s County Public Schools from ever having to face the reprehensible treatment that Jennifer Eller endured,” he added.

“The settlement reached…is a meaningful result for our client, whose primary goal in bringing this suit was to ensure that no other individuals in the Prince George’s County Public Schools system endured the same treatment that she did,” Lori Leskin, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, said in a statement. “Our hope is that the policies and training protocols that have been and will be implemented will help foster a more inclusive and accepting environment for all LGBTQ+ individuals in the school system.”

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