A lawsuit filed against Prince George’s County Public Schools and the county’s Board of Education charges that a female transgender teacher was subjected to five years of discrimination, harassment, abuse and retaliation by school administrators, fellow teachers, students and parents after she transitioned in 2011 from male to female.
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 28, 2018 in United States District Court for the District of Maryland by the nationally known law firm Arnold and Porter on behalf of Jennifer Eller, an English teacher. On Dec. 20, the LGBT litigation group Lambda Legal joined Arnold & Porter in representing Eller.
The lawsuit says Eller taught at three schools in the P.G. County public school system from 2008 to 2017, when the lawsuit says she was forced to resign after school officials allegedly refused to adequately address the anti-trans harassment and abuse Eller encountered beginning in 2011.
“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by Lambda Legal.
“I woke up each day afraid to go to work because I didn’t know where the next attack would come from, but I already knew full well that the school administrators would do nothing to support me,” she said. “My pleas for help, for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, fell on deaf ears,” she said.
“Finally, the harassment and the humiliation became unbearable and I had no other alternative than to resign,” she said in her statement. “No one – student or teacher – should go through the hell I was put through at school just for being who they are.”
The lawsuit charges that the treatment to which the school district and its administrators subjected Eller violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Equal Protection Cause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Prince George’s County Code.
In addition to Prince George’s County Public Schools and the Prince George’s County Board of Education, the lawsuit names as a defendant Monica Goldson, the school system’s Interim Chief Executive Officer.
John White, the official spokesperson for the Prince George’s County public school system, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the school system doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Under court rules the school system, school board, and Goldson have 21 days from the time they were officially served papers naming them as defendants in the lawsuit to file an answer to the lawsuit.
The statement released by Lambda Legal says the alleged discrimination and harassment against Eller began in March 2011, three years after she began working as an English teacher at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, Md. It was at that time, the statement says, that Eller informed the principal at the school that “she would be transitioning to live authentically as the woman she is.”
According to the statement, when she began to present as a woman she was subjected to verbal abuse by students and was instructed by school officials to “stop wearing skirts or dresses.”
The statement says sometime later in 2011 Eller was transferred to Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md., where she also encountered abuse and harassment to a greater degree than she encountered at Kenmoor Middle School.
“She was the target of rampant verbal and physical harassment for wearing traditionally feminine attire and staff demanded that she present as ‘male,’ dismissing a therapist’s note as ‘garbage,’” the Lambda Legal statement says. “Students would shout transphobic slurs at her and she was repeatedly misgendered and threatened,” it says. “She reported all these incidents to school administrators, who took little to no action and ignored her.”
The lawsuit states that a therapist Eller had been seeing to assist her in her transition process wrote a note to school officials explaining the importance of her presenting as a woman in women’s attire as part of the transition.
Both the Lambda Legal statement and the lawsuit say that in 2015 Eller filed a complaint against the school system with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reporting the alleged harassment and abuse she had encountered at the schools for which she taught.
“After an extensive and thorough investigation, in September 2017, the EEOC issued a letter finding that there was reasonable cause to believe that Ms. Eller had been subject to unlawful treatment based on her sex and gender in violation of Title VII, in effect recognizing and confirming this discriminatory treatment on the part of students, parents, staff, and administration,” the Lambda Legal statement says.
“After she filed this discrimination charge, the school administration retaliated against Ms. Eller by taking away her advanced placement English class and opening a disciplinary hearing against her that ended in no sanctions,” the statement says.
Omar Gonzales-Pagan, a Lambda Legal attorney working on Eller’s case, told the Washington Blade that under federal law the EEOC has direct enforcement authority over private employers and over federal government employment practices, but its authority does not cover state and local employers such as the P.G. County school system.
Gonzales-Pagan noted that in past years the U.S. Justice Department stepped in to enforce an EEOC ruling against a state or local government employer. But he said the Justice Department under the Trump administration declined to intervene in Eller’s case.
“That’s what triggered the filing of this lawsuit,” Gonzales-Pagan said.
Among the allegations made by the lawsuit is that after she began presenting as a woman in March 2011 at Kenmoor Middle School Eller “immediately became the target of rampant harassment by staff and students alike.” Students “called her a pedophile, and the human resources representative, enlisted to help her through the transition, demanded that she present as male,” the lawsuit states.
Shortly after transferring to Friendly High School “students continuously referred to her as ‘mister’ and ‘he,’” the lawsuit says. It says other students refused to sit in their assigned seats in her classes and refused to provide her with their names.
“By December 2011, some students would ask Ms. Eller about the appearance of her genitals,” the lawsuit notes. “Others would run unannounced into her classroom, scream ‘he’ or ‘shim,’ and immediately run away,” the lawsuit says.
It also notes that it took school officials three years to update Eller’s email address to reflect her new name after her transition. It says that even after the EEOC’s finding of probable cause of discrimination in 2017 the school system’s publicly accessible employee directory continued to list Eller by her male birth name.
The lawsuit says parents also subjected Eller to harassment, with one parent threatening to inform the school board that Eller was a “lying, pedophile, tranny” as a man pretending to be a woman.
“To the best of Plaintiff’s information and belief, Defendants took little, no, or ineffective action in response to any of the afore-described incidents of discrimination, abuse, harassment, and even physical assault,” the lawsuit concludes.
The lawsuit says that following years of facing a hostile work environment Eller “reached her breaking point” and was forced to take a medical leave of absence on Oct. 7, 2016.
“Ms. Eller immediately checked into an outpatient psychiatric program at Georgetown University Hospital, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the abuse, discrimination, and retaliation she experienced as an employee of Defendants,” the lawsuit says.
“Ms. Eller was able to continue her leave of absence until spring of 2017,” the lawsuit continues. “However, concluding that she would not survive the strain of returning to her prior intolerable working conditions, Ms. Eller was forced to resign on August 18, 2017,” it says.
The lawsuit notes that Eller has since landed a job as a youth counselor with the U.S. Navy’s Child & Youth Programs known as the Navy CYP, where she is “treated with respect and as an equal.”
Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal and Paul Pompeo, the lead attorney working on Eller’s case from Arnold & Porter, said the lawsuit is needed to hold P.G. County school officials accountable for the years of mistreatment Eller encountered solely because of her status as a transgender person.
“The level of verbal and even physical abuse Ms. Eller endured at school is horrifying, and the failure of school administrators to take the abuse seriously and to respect and protect Ms. Eller is not only inexcusable, it is unlawful,” Gonzalez-Pagan said. “We look forward to vindicating Ms. Eller’s rights,” he said.
Among other things, the lawsuit calls for the court to grant Eller “declaratory and injunctive relief,” including possible reinstatement as a teacher, back pay and lost benefits, and a requirement that the school system end its discriminatory practices against transgender employees.
It also calls for an award of compensation for “emotional pain and suffering, embarrassment, anxiety, stress, depression, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and violation of her dignity, in amounts to be determined at trial.”
Gonzalez-Pagan said Eller would not be available at this time for an interview with the Blade or other news media outlets.