A transgender teacher in Maryland settled a harassment and discrimination lawsuit with officials in Prince George’s County schools, in an agreement that her lawyers said includes improvements in policies, procedures and training to protect transgender students and staff.
Jennifer Eller, who left the school system in 2017, also received financial compensation, according to her attorneys, who said they could not disclose the sum under the agreement. Eller said in an interview that she was “overwhelmed” after nearly four years of litigation and incidents of harassment going back more than a decade.
“The most important part of all of this for me is that there can be protections in place for trans adults and trans youth,” she said. “We live in a time when there’s so much legislation and argument and fear around transgender people. To have policies and procedures in place that help create a welcoming environment — there is nothing can match the relief and joy I feel knowing that these things are in place.”
Eller’s settlement comes as LGBTQ people have been under attack by governors and legislators around the country. In Virginia, the administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) recently instructed schools to no longer allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms in line with their gender identity. New state guidance says students should use school facilities and participate in sports according to the sex they were assigned at birth. It was a major setback for transgender students, but it is unclear if the move was legal, and some school systems have vowed to resist it.
In Maryland, the settlement came ahead of a trial that had been slated to begin Sept. 28. A settlement order, signed by U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang, dismissed the case Sept. 19 after attorneys for Eller and the Prince George’s school system advised the court that they had reached an agreement.
Prince George’s County school officials said the lawsuit was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. The school system “reaffirms its commitment to promoting and maintaining learning and working environments that are safe, positive and affirming for all students and staff regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” spokeswoman Meghan Gebreselassie said in an email.
Gebreselassie’s email made no reference to the specifics of Eller’s case but said the district reviews policies and procedures for compliance and best practices, and will continue to do so. It cited steps including mandatory LGBTQ+ training for staff and administrators to ensure inclusive learning environments and support for student-led clubs and gender-sexuality alliances in schools.
Eller, 45, had reported harassment starting in 2011, when she came out to her principal and began living more openly as a woman while teaching English at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover. Students called her a pedophile, her complaint alleged, and an administrator told her to avoid skirts or dresses because it would make other people uncomfortable. A human resources representative called a note from her therapist about her transition “garbage” and insisted she appear as male, the filing said.
Twice she transferred to new schools.
At Friendly High School, Eller taught English classes, including AP English, and was the faculty sponsor for the National Honor Society and the Gay-Straight Alliance. She was regularly targeted for her gender identity, the complaint said, with students calling her “mister” or “he/she” or “it” or asking about her genitals.
In August 2012, a Friendly student and his friends encountered her in a parking lot and threatened to rape Eller and make her “their girlfriend,” the document said. Eller said she reported the threat but it appeared to go nowhere. The student denied it, and Eller was told there was nothing the administration could do, the complaint alleged.
When she filed formal complaints after four years, she alleges, school officials retaliated.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined her claims had merit, finding reasonable cause to believe she had been treated unlawfully and retaliated against, according to her attorneys.
Her lawyers filed a federal suit in Maryland in December 2018, alleging that the Prince George’s school system, with roughly 130,000 students, violated constitutional protections and federal, state and county laws by discriminating against Eller on the basis of sex and transgender status. Eller was represented pro bono by a team of lawyers at Lambda Legal and Arnold & Porter.
Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, one of her attorneys, said that when the case was filed, protections for transgender students and staff employees in Prince George’s lagged behind other school systems in the region, including the District and Montgomery County. Now, he said, Prince George’s is on more equal footing — and as one of the nation’s largest school systems, it stands to affect decisions by other districts nationally, he said.
“We hope that this case can illustrate that these types of situations are not tolerable and are not lawful,” he said.
Eller, who lives in Northern Virginia and is pursuing a master’s degree in divinity studies, pointed out that transgender youth are at greater risk for suicide and other self-harm.
“To have in place school policies that affirm how a child understands who they are in their innermost being, that’s a policy that will help save lives,” Eller said. “That’s a policy that will help keep people safe.”
The two sides have been involved in conversations and consultations about improving and expanding policies and administrative procedures in Prince George’s schools over the past two years, said Gonzalez-Pagan. Three policies and five administrative procedures have been changed and adopted during that time, including at least one that was created anew, he said. All are considered part of the settlement.
“It doesn’t stop bad actors from existing, but it certainly provides the tools to address those situations and to allow for people to be heard and be seen by the school administration,” he said.
Especially important to Eller is an administrative procedure, adopted last year, that lays out what it means to be transgender, with a glossary of terms, and provides information about school records, pronoun use, confidentiality, school facilities, dress codes, athletic participation and other issues. It covers students and staff members.
Prince George’s officials also highlighted the procedure, as well as a related policy.
The school system has agreed to maintain and enforce the new and revised policies and practices, along with using inclusive training protocols called SafeSchools and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools, lawyers said.
“If these policies had been in place when I started my process,” Eller reflected, “I would have known what my protections were and what I can expect from folks. And that’s not to say everybody’s perfect or that everyone would follow it. But I think that it would have been different. I think it would have been a healthier environment for me.”