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VICTORY! Prince George’s County Board of Ed Agrees to Policy Changes to Protect LGBTQ+ Students and School Staff after Lawsuit

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September 26, 2022
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Today, Lambda Legal and Arnold & Porter announced they have reached a settlement agreement with the Prince George’s County Board of Education in Maryland on behalf of a transgender teacher, Jennifer Eller, who had suffered years of abuse, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of both students and staff while teaching in Prince George’s County public schools on account of her being transgender. Through today’s settlement agreement, the lawsuit has now been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties. The settlement agreement includes monetary compensation and incorporates policy and training changes to protect transgender students and staff within Prince George’s County Public Schools.  

“I’m relieved to see this case finally come to a resolution and satisfied to see that our case led to the adoption of these policy changes and training protocols to improve the school environment for everyone, including LGBTQ+ students and teachers,” said plaintiff Jennifer Eller. “This settlement vindicates my pleas for help and sensitivity training on LGBTQ+ issues for students and staff. Every student and every teacher should feel safe, welcomed, and respected in a school environment. I am hopeful that with the new policy and training changes adopted by the Board of Education in response to my case, there are now strong measures to prevent and address discrimination or harassment towards transgender staff or students.  

The settlement comes in the lawsuit Eller v. Prince George’s County Public Schools, which was filed in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. The plaintiff, Jennifer Eller, an English teacher who taught at three Prince George’s County Public Schools from 2008 to 2016, endured years of harassment, abuse, 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. Despite multiple reports filed by Ms. Eller documenting these incidents, school administrators and district officials took little to no action and ignored her complaints.  

On January 14, 2022, U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang, who presided over the case, denied the Board of Education’s request for judgment prior to trial, finding that “the fact that harassment of Eller continued unabated despite her complaints for multiple years across three different schools illustrates that the record supports the conclusion that Defendants had not taken measures reasonably calculated to end the harassment” and that there was sufficient evidence to go to trial on Ms. Eller’s hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims. 

“Public schools should be safe havens where we prepare the leaders of tomorrow and where all are welcome regardless of background or identity. No person should have to endure the relentless harassment, threats, and even violence that are outlined in Jennifer Eller’s complaint,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Omar Gonzalez-Pagan. “Transphobia and harassment have no place in the workplace or in our schools. We are gratified that we have been able to vindicate Jennifer Eller’s rights and hopeful that with this settlement we will be able to prevent having any transgender person at Prince George’s County public schools from ever having to face the reprehensible treatment that Jennifer Eller endured.” 

“The settlement reached today is a meaningful result for our client, whose primary goal in bringing this suit was to ensure that no other individuals in the Prince George’s County Public Schools system endured the same treatment that she did. Our hope is that the policies and training protocols that have been and will be implemented will help foster a more inclusive and accepting environment for all LGBTQ+ individuals in the school system,” said Arnold & Porter partner Lori Leskin.  

The agreement reached put forward a series of policy, training, and administrative procedure changes that the Prince George’s County Board of Education has adopted throughout the pendency of the case, in consultation with Ms. Eller and her lawyers. Such policy, training, and administrative procedure changes includes, but are not limited to, workplace bullying, social media policies, student behavior interventions, policies for bullying or harassment, transgender and gender diversity policies, inclusive nondiscrimination policies, and the promulgation of inclusive environments for LGBTQIA+ people. As part of the settlement agreement, the Board of Education has committed itself to maintaining these new policies adopted in large part as a result of Ms. Eller’s lawsuit, as well as inclusive training protocols including Safe Schools and Welcoming Schools.  

The lawsuit argued that the school district and its administrators violated Jennifer Eller’s rights under 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. 

Attorneys working on the case for Lambda Legal are: Counsel Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Senior Attorney Carl S. Charles, and Staff Attorney Kell L. Olson; and for Arnold & Porter are: Partners Lori B. Leskin and Paul E. Pompeo, Senior Counsels Douglas F. Curtis and Justice (ret.) Rosalyn Richter, Counsel Kevin Cline, Senior Associate Jocelyn A. Wiesner, and Associates Lucas Barrett, Patrick Derocher, and Andrew Hannemann. 

Additional Background: 

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 Master 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 shouted 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 identity 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 in no discipline. 

Read the court’s earlier decision here: Memorandum Opinion on Summary Judgment | Lambda Legal