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Families sue Montgomery County schools over LGBTQ-inclusive books

Children books that are fighting for survival at public schools because of their LGBTQ content are displayed at the annual Pride Town Hall at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Three families are suing the Montgomery County school board and superintendent over the school system’s updated curriculum that includes books for young students featuring LGBTQ characters. The parents argue that the district’s lack of an opt-out option violates their First Amendment rights.

The books are a part of a larger supplemental curriculum announced by the school system in January that adds titles for kindergarten through fifth grades. The school system revised its policies in March and informed parents they shouldn’t expect advance notice of when these books would be used in classrooms and opting out of the lessons was no longer allowed.

The 47-page complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, alleges that the school district didn’t follow state law or their own policies on religious protections when it struck out an opt-out option. Through the complaint, they also point out that the school system initially let families opt out, but reversed that decision.

A spokeswoman for the school system declined to comment on the lawsuit due to the pending litigation.

Conversations in the classroom about gender identity and sexuality have become contentious between school systems and parents across the country. A recent Washington Post analysis found that books about LGBTQ people are fast becoming the main target in a historic wave of schoolbook challenges. Last year, several Maryland parents protested at school board meetings because of a health education framework that included discussions around gender identity in the elementary-level grades.

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In Montgomery County, the parents and organizers who are protesting have said they are not trying to get the books removed but they want the school system to restore the opt-out option. The complaint from the families suing the school district doesn’t request a removal of the books.

The books were celebrated by LGBTQ advocates and students who were asking for the school system to diversify its curriculum. Some of the books on the reading list include “Love Violet” about a girl who is trying to figure out how to give a Valentine to her crush who is another girl in class, and “My Rainbow” about a mom who makes a rainbow wig for her transgender daughter.

The parents allege in the complaint that Montgomery County is violating a state law that delineates topics around gender and sexuality require an opt-out option. They say the books introduce conversation in the classroom about gender identity.

But the school system has a different characterization of the state law. School officials say the policy the parents reference explicitly allows an opt-out option for health education curriculum. Since the new books are part of its language arts curriculum, the opt-outs are not allowed.

At a school board meeting Thursday, Niki Hazel, the associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional programs, reinforced the state guidelines. Hazel emphasized during a question-and-answer session with the school board members that the books are not lessons on sexuality.

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“Fundamentally, diversity is a good thing; inclusion is a good thing. By providing these diverse and inclusive texts, by aligning ourselves and following state guidance on when opt out is appropriate, we are doing a service to our students,” said Arvin Kim, the school board’s student representative and a senior at Walt Whitman High School.

The complaint points to passages from the books that the parents find to be inappropriate and inconsistent with their values. For example, they point to a line in “Love Violet” where the protagonist, Violet, describes how her classmate Mira makes her “heart skip.” They also point out specific parts of “Pride Puppy,” a story about a dog that takes off during a Pride parade. At the beginning of the book, there is a “search and find word list” that encourages readers to look for objects throughout the picture book like an “intersex [flag],” “leather,” and “underwear,” which the complaint notes. The list also contains objects like muffins, a recycling bin and ripped jeans.

The families’ attorneys plan to ask in federal court for the current no opt-out policy to be blocked.

They also ask for the school districts to award the parents damages since they have been “forced to pursue other educational opportunities for their children.”