Lambda Legal Joins Arnold & Porter in Lawsuit Brought Against Suburban DC School District on Behalf of Transgender Teacher

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December 20, 2018
Schoolteacher Jennifer Eller.

Today, Lambda Legal joined Arnold & Porter in a lawsuit filed against the Prince George’s County Public Schools and Board of Education on behalf of a transgender teacher who endured years of abuse, harassment and retaliation at the hands of school administrators, fellow teachers, staff, parents and students after she began to live authentically as the woman she is.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of Jennifer Eller, an English teacher who taught at three schools within the district from 2008 to 2017, when she was forced to resign.

“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.

“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. My pleas for help, for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, fell on deaf ears. Finally, the harassment and the humiliation became unbearable and I had no other alternative than to resign. No one—student or teacher—should go through the hell I was put through at school just for being who they are.”

The lawsuit argues that the school district and its administrators violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act and the Prince George’s County Code.

“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 inexcusable, it is unlawful,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Senior Attorney at Lambda Legal.

“Ms. Eller even tried to work with school administrators by asking them to offer transgender awareness training for students, staff, and administrators, but efforts were in vain. As a result, Ms. Eller was forced to leave a job she loved: teaching. The school district’s actions contravene everything our schools should foster: an inclusive and welcoming educational environment for all students and teachers. We look forward to vindicating Ms. Eller’s rights.”

After graduating from college in South Dakota, Ms. Eller worked as a paraprofessional at a Sioux Falls middle school and as a tutor at a Christian adolescent counseling center. In 2006, while working on her Masters of Fine Arts at Minnesota State University, Ms. Eller discovered her passion for teaching children and instilling in them a love for literature. She applied for her teaching certification in Maryland and, in 2008, Ms. Eller started working as an English teacher at Kenmoor Middle School.

Three years later, in March, 2011, she informed the principal at Kenmoor Middle School that she would be transitioning to live authentically as the woman she is. 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.

Ms. Eller transferred to Friendly High School in 2011, but the abuse only escalated. 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”.

Students would shout transphobic slurs at her and she was repeatedly misgendered and threatened. She reported all these incidents to school administrators, who took little to no action and ignored her.

Finally, in June 2015, Ms. Eller filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 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.

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 with no sanctions.

Paul Pompeo, a partner at Arnold & Porter, who is leading the case shared: “We are pleased to have Lambda Legal join the team in our prosecution of Ms. Eller’s rights, to rectify the egregious acts of discrimination and retaliation she suffered during her employment at the hands of the Defendants. Lambda Legal adds unique experience involving civil rights of transgender Americans.” 

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan and Staff Attorney Puneet Cheema are working with Paul Pompeo, Christina Brenha, Elliott Mogul, and Michael Rodriguez from Arnold & Porter, who have represented Ms. Eller since May 2016.