Federal judge rules in favor of Mukwonago trans student

Tensions over LGBTQ issues continue brewing in Waukesha County schools

By: - July 10, 2023 5:45 am
People gather for a March 31 event in New Orleans for Transgender Day of Visibility. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Illuminator

People gather for a March 31 event in New Orleans for Transgender Day of Visibility. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)

A federal judge has granted an emergency temporary restraining order in a case involving an 11-year-old transgender student in the Mukwonago Area School District. The student, who has identified as a girl since the age of three, has participated in girls’ school activities and used the girls’ bathroom since the third grade without issue. That changed in June, when district staff told the student’s mother that her child would be required to use a boys’ bathroom or gender-neutral bathroom at the school.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman prohibits superintendent Joe Koch, as well as all officers, employees and agents of the school district from preventing the student from using the girls’ restroom, and from taking any formal or informal disciplinary action against the student for doing so. According to a court filing outlining the restraining order, Koch reached out to the 11-year-old’s mother to lay out the new restrictions on her use of the girls’ bathroom. The court filing states that the policy, “has caused plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress and mental health effects, including thoughts of self-harm, nightmares, embarrassment, social isolation and stigma, and lowered self-esteem.”

Attorneys representing the child, dubbed “Jane Doe #1” in court filings, filed a lawsuit under the Education Amendments Act of 1972, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Adelman referenced case law stemming from nearly identical situations involving discrimination against transgender people, noting that both the 1972 education law and the 14th Amendment applied in those cases. The case Adelman cited involved the Kenosha Unified School District.

Alexa Milton, an attorney who represents the student, explained that the issue began with complaints sent to the school district. “The school started to get a bunch of messages from angry parents, sort of abstractly angry about the idea of any quote-unquote ‘boy’ in the girls’ restroom when, of course, that’s not what’s happening,” Milton told Wisconsin Examiner. “And the school board got involved, as well as the new superintendent, and ultimately started preventing our client from using the girls’ restroom.”

Milton said that since first reaching out to her parents, the district has monitored the child’s restroom usage by having staff out in the hallway watching for her. The student has also been pulled out of class to discuss her bathroom usage, and has been threatened with disciplinary action, the attorney said. Prior to the district’s actions, Milton said that the student had not had problems  with other students. “Once this all started to ramp up, she did start to have issues with bullying and harassment,” said Milton, “especially happening on the school bus…called a freak, told she didn’t belong in their school, and that all really seemed to happen through the same time that the district began changing their rules as far as the bathroom use.”

The child’s mother, named in court filings as Jane Doe #2, recalled the principal telling her that parents were complaining about her child. Some  parents were “ asking questions about my child, asking about my child’s genitalia, and the principal was very clear [responding to them] that ‘I can’t talk about any kid that’s not your kid,’ the mother told Wisconsin Examiner. “She called to let me know and it just kind of escalated from there. I didn’t think we’d be where we are now.”

Things escalated quickly, as seemingly organized groups began showing up at school board meetings. It wasn’t the first time  parents in the area  organized against LGBTQ-related issues in local school districts. Last year schools in Waukesha County, where the Mukwonago Area School District is located, prohibited signs Waukesha administrators said were associated with  political activism. Among the banned signs were some promoting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ-positive rainbow symbols. A Waukesha elementary school teacher, Melissa Tempel, was removed from her job after she criticized the school district for banning the Muppets song “Rainbowland” from a spring concert because of its possible LGBTQ associations. A hearing on Tempel’s employment status is scheduled for Wednesday.

Schools in the area have also quietly revised library policies and removed or restricted books dealing with topics of gender identity, the LGBTQ community, multiculturalism and racial inequality. During an over four hour school board meeting in May, many parents spoke out against LGBTQ-positive curriculum in schools, and against  transgender students in particular. Some residents referred to transgender people as “counterfeit,” while others argued that the rights of the few — in reference to transgender students using bathrooms that conform to their gender — don’t outweigh the rights of the many.

The case involving the 11-year-old student known simply as Jane Doe is ongoing. Milton said that the judge is expected to issue a more detailed order soon. After seeing what her client went through, Milton said, “getting her some relief from what she was going through was incredibly important.” It’s distressing, she adds, to see pressure ramping up in the community despite cases that have already established legal protections against transgender discrimination.

‘We’re just really pleased that the court was able to recognize so clearly that her rights were being violated, and take action so quickly to protect them, and we’re looking forward to defending that victory as litigation continues,” Milton  said.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.