School Board Accused of Contempt of Court for Violating Federal Court Order to Reinstate Teachers

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School Board Accused of Contempt of Court for Violating Federal Court Order to Reinstate Teachers

(L–R) Teacher Lori Ann West, attorney Paul Jonna, and teacher Elizabeth Mirabelli. A federal judge on Sept. 14 blocked a school district in Escondido, Calif., from punishing the two teachers for refusing to keep gender transitions of students secret from their parents. (Courtesy of Paul Jonna)

Brad Jones

Brad Jones

12/14/2023

Updated: 12/14/2023

Attorneys for two California teachers have asked a U.S. district court to hold local school board officials and certain staff in contempt of court for allegedly defying a federal court order allowing the teachers to return to work.
The teachers, Elizabeth Mirabelli and Lori Ann West, sued Escondido Union School District and Rincon Middle School in April over a policy regarding secret gender transitions of students they claim violates their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Three months ago, on Sept. 14, Judge Roger Benitez granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the teachers and issued a federal court order to “restrain any governmental employee or entity from taking any adverse employment actions thereupon against Plaintiffs Mirabelli or West, until further Order of this Court.”
The judge tentatively ruled the policy as unconstitutional and ordered the district to let the teachers return to their jobs at Rincon Middle School without having to comply with it—but the district has refused to let the teachers back in the classroom, said Paul Jonna, a partner in the law firm LiMandri & Jonna, special counsel for the Thomas More Society and lead attorney representing the teachers.
“We’re asking the court to hold them in contempt for violating the preliminary injunction order,” Mr. Jonna said.

Teachers ‘Harassed’

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed on April 27, Mrs. Mirabelli was mocked and harassed at school, he said.
“Students plastered her classroom with all kinds of hateful and demeaning images,” Mr. Jonna said. “The students wouldn’t have been able to get in there without a teacher helping them, so we know there are some teachers on campus that are facilitating this sort of disruption.”
The incident prompted Mrs. Mirabelli to ask the district to take steps to ensure her safety, such as having a designated contact at the school to call in case she felt threatened, but according to Mr. Jonna, her concerns were “ignored.”
Both teachers were placed on paid administrative leave after speaking out against the policy, which directs school staff to conceal changes in the gender identity of students from their parents unless the student wants to tell them, in line with statewide guidance issued by the California Department of Education.
The teachers objected on “moral and religious grounds,” and both said they weren’t comfortable with the notion of keeping secrets from parents about their children’s gender identities at school. They asked their employer for exemptions, but were denied.
Mrs. Mirabelli asked to be placed on temporary leave when students and staff allegedly harassed her at school, while Mrs. West, who wanted to continue teaching, was placed on involuntary leave pending an administrative investigation, according to the contempt of court application.
After the judge granted the preliminary injunction, some teachers and students wore LGBT Pride shirts and staged a protest against Mrs. Mirabelli and Mrs. West, and someone on campus signed up both teachers to receive pro-LGBT emails.
A poster promoting the Oct. 20 protest displayed photos of the two teachers and blamed them for “blocking a policy that protects Trans [youth].” The last line on the poster showed the protest was organized via a phone app used by teachers to communicate with students and parents. The app revealed the organizers and everyone involved, so Mrs. Mirabelli and Mrs. West discovered that “Rincon Middle School personnel were involved in the protest,” according to the contempt of court application.
“There are lots of other examples, but it was very clear that students and teachers on campus were harassing our clients and getting away with it,” he said.
The situation was “a lot worse” for Mrs. West, who was told she couldn’t return to work because the district was investigating allegations aimed at her, Mr. Jonna said.
The district is supposed to conclude these investigations in 30 days, but it took five months to conclude the first investigation, he said. When Mrs. West was notified the investigation had concluded and no action was taken because the allegations were unfounded, the district opened another investigation, he said.
Staff and students walk through a hallway at a California school in a file photo. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Staff and students walk through a hallway at a California school in a file photo. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The subsequent investigation, launched after the preliminary injunction was granted, is based on the complaints of “a student who was in Mrs. West’s eighth grade P.E. class back in the 2018–2019 school year,” according to the contempt of court application.
“According to that complainant, Mrs. West had a habit of making racist comments in front of her class, including using specific racially derogatory terms,” Mr. Jonna stated in the document. “Oddly, the complainant did not bother to note Mrs. West’s supposed racism until after this Court’s preliminary injunction order. Nobody else has ever accused Mrs. West of racism—in her thirty years of teaching—and even from the two hundred or more students she would have taught in the 2018-2019 school year, no others have accused her of making racist comments.”
With Mrs. West having 30 years of “glowing reviews” as a teacher, Mr. Jonna called the complaint “blatantly frivolous” and, in the contempt of court application, accused the school district of attempting to bypass the preliminary injunction order with “serial complaints.”
“This could have been closed out in a matter of weeks. Instead, here we are coming up on three months since the court ruled and still [she] is not allowed to return to work,” Mr. Jonna said.
The district still hasn’t indicated when the latest investigation is expected to conclude, he said, while the judge made it very clear that no “adverse employment actions” were to be taken against them.
Meanwhile, the teachers remain steadfast in the belief their constitutional rights were violated, he said.
“They’re not giving up,” Mr. Jonna said. “They have a mix of emotions. They’re upset, they’re frustrated, and they have some anxiety associated with going back to school [under] the circumstances.”
Both teachers were even named “teacher of the year” while working for the district, yet they are now being “vilified, harassed, and targeted,” Mr. Jonna said.
“It’s despicable how they’ve been treated,” he said. “They’re treated like criminals.”

Gender Transition Controversy

The teachers told The Epoch Times in September that gender transition, especially among girls at the middle school, is a “social experiment” that has become a social contagion.
When girls go to the school counselors claiming a new gender identity they’re celebrated and affirmed as “brave” and “honest,” Mrs. West said at the time.
Until recently, it was rare to have even one child identify as transgender, but it’s becoming much more common, Mrs. West said.
“I had seven girls in one class that wanted to be trans all of a sudden,” she said.
Some school districts in California have flouted the guidance given by the state Department of Education and implemented policies requiring schools to notify parents of a student’s gender identity.
In a separate case, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Chino Valley Unified School District to block its parental notification policy that required school staff inform parents if their child changed his or her gender identity at school. Mr. Bonta was granted a preliminary injunction to halt the policy pending the outcome of that lawsuit.
Chino Valley Unified School Board President Sonja Shaw speaks in support of a parental rights policy proposal at a press conference in Chino, Calif., on June 15, 2023. (California Family Council/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Chino Valley Unified School Board President Sonja Shaw speaks in support of a parental rights policy proposal at a press conference in Chino, Calif., on June 15, 2023. (California Family Council/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Mr. Jonna urged the state to drop its lawsuit against Chino Valley and its parental exclusion policy.
“They’re continuing to fight this case ... but what they should do is rescind the policy in light of a federal court saying it’s likely unconstitutional,” he said.
In a Dec. 6 statement, Mr. Jonna praised Judge Benitez’s assessment that the parental exclusion policy represents a “trifecta of harm” to children, parents, and teachers.
In its preliminary ruling, the court stated the policy “harms the child who needs parental guidance and possibly mental health intervention to determine if the incongruence is organic or whether it is the result of bullying, peer pressure, or a fleeting impulse. It harms the parents by depriving them of the long recognized Fourteenth Amendment right to care, guide, and make health care decisions for their children. And finally, it harms plaintiffs [teachers] who are compelled to violate the parent’s rights by forcing plaintiffs to conceal information they feel is critical for the welfare of their students—violating plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”

What’s Next?

No hearing date has been set for the contempt of court hearing, Mr. Jonna said.
A deeper probe into how and why secret social gender transitions are happening so frequently in California schools will occur when discovery in the case begins early in the new year, he said.
“We’re going to get a lot more information about what’s really going on here in terms of what they’re doing and why they’re taking these extreme positions,” he said. “The policy [is] so dangerous on a practical level, and so obviously illegal, that for them to continue to dig their heels in at this point, even after a federal court essentially blocked the policy is really puzzling. We’re going to find out pretty soon.”
Despite the accusations, the teachers don’t want to put any students in harm’s way, Mr. Jonna said.
“It’s quite the opposite,” he said. “They know that leaving their parents in the dark about something so serious as a gender identity is harmful and dangerous, and so they don’t want to lie to parents. That’s bottom line. They love their LGBT students. They care about them just like they care about all their other students, but they don’t want to be part of this elaborate scheme to keep parents in the dark.”
The contempt of court application asks for attorney’s fees and a further court order directing the district to comply immediately and allow the teachers to safely go back to work.
“We’re asking for civil contempt sanctions, not criminal,” Mr. Jonna said. “We didn’t file this application without giving it some serious thought and waiting a long time to see if they would come into compliance, which they have not.”
Mark Olson, the school board president who is named in the lawsuit, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Superintendent Luis A. Rankins-Ibarra or school trustees Frank Huston, Joan Gardner, Doug Paulson, and Zesty Harper, who are named in the contempt of court application.
Assistant Superintendent John Albert, Integrated Student Services Director Trent Smith, Integrated Student Supports Director Tracy Schmidt, and Rincon Middle School Principal Steve White are also named in the contempt of court application.
The contempt of court application is directed at the school district, and doesn’t include the state, which is also named in the pending lawsuit.
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