School district pays $100,000 to settle suit saying it supported secret transitioning of student

San Diego, CA - September 25: At the California Republicans Convention on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in San Diego, CA., Harmeet Dhillon took questions from audience during the panel discussion for "The National Debate over election integrity laws". (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Harmeet Dhillon, seen here in 2021, was lead counsel for plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing a Monterey County school district of supporting the secret transitioning of a student without their parent's knowledge. The suit was settled early last month. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Monterey County school district has settled a lawsuit that alleged middle school staff "convinced" a student to identify first as bisexual and then as transgender, without informing the 11-year-old's mother.

The Spreckels Union School District, which encompasses an elementary and middle school in the Salinas area, paid nearly $100,000 to a Monterey County mother and daughter over an alleged violation of the parent's 14th Amendment right to raise her child.

The settlement, agreed to in mid-June and approved by a federal judge Aug. 3, brings an end to the legal action pursued by Jessica Konen and her daughter Alicia, who went by the initials A.G.

Calls to the district superintendent were not immediately returned. An employee at Dhillon Law Group, which represented Konen, instructed a Times reporter to “call back next week.”

In a social media statement this week, lead counsel Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member, said, “This win sends a clear message that parental rights must be respected. Jessica and Alicia’s courage continued to inspire countless other parents to stand against the violation of their rights.”

Mother and daughter are receiving $48,000 each in the settlement, while $4,000 is being directed to the California Department of Health Care Services for medical expenses incurred by the plaintiffs.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has previously pointed to California Department of Education Code in the matter of a district's obligation to inform a parent.

“Disclosing that a student is transgender without the student’s permission may violate California’s anti-discrimination law by increasing the student’s vulnerability to harassment and may violate the student’s right to privacy," he wrote in a July 20 letter.

The lawsuit alleged that teachers and administrators at Buena Vista Middle School “secretly convinced A.G.” that she was bisexual and, later, transgender.

The child started using a new name and pronouns, and the school began to change A.G.’s name on educational records, the lawsuit said. The student was also granted access to a teacher’s unisex bathroom.

A.G. suffered “profound mental stress” due to the action of school personnel, who encouraged the student not to inform her mother, according to the lawsuit.

Read more: California sues Chino school district, aiming to end policy notifying parents of student gender changes

On campus, teachers and staff would address the student under the new name, while reverting back to A.G. when communicating with Konen, the lawsuit said.

Teachers and staff began “instructing A.G. that she must not tell her mother about her new gender identity,” the lawsuit said.

The school’s unofficial stance, endorsed by the principal, was a parental secrecy policy in which teachers and staff would “keep certain information about students’ gender identity and expression secret from parents,” the lawsuit said.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit were Buena Vista teachers Lori Caldeira and Kelly Baraki — who ran the school’s gay-straight alliance club, “You be You,” or UBU — and then-Principal Katelyn Pagaran.

Baraki and Caldeira resigned shortly after the district placed them on administrative leave in November. Pagaran resigned at the end of June.

A.G. began attending sixth grade at Buena Vista in 2018. It was there, the lawsuit alleges, that Caldeira encouraged her to attend the school’s Equality Club, which later became UBU.

Caldeira and Baraki “told A.G. that she was bisexual,” an idea “that did not originate with A.G.,” according to the lawsuit. The two eventually convinced the child she was transgender, the suit said.

A.G. spent three years at Buena Vista before leaving for high school in a new district in the fall of 2021.

A lawsuit was not filed, however, until after comments Caldeira and Baraki made at a California Teachers conference that October became public.

Excerpts from their presentation, “How we run a ‘GSA’ in Conservative Communities” were published the following month in a Substack post titled, "How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids."

Read more: Ronna McDaniel beats California challenger to remain Republican National Committee chair

In a statement to local media, including Salinas television station KSBW, in November 2021, Spreckels Union said, “Many of the comments and themes stated in the article are alarming, concerning, disappointing and do not in any way reflect the District or the Board of Education’s policies and practices.”

The district suspended the UBU club for one year.

At the school district's request, the Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Makus began an investigation in December 2021.

“The district asked us to determine whether the two teachers engaged in any deceptive conduct as to the UBU club’s function; and, whether they engaged in any inappropriate activity involving students and the UBU club,” Van Dermyden Makus wrote in an executive summary of its findings.

The law firm found that the teachers did not deceive administrators or parents about the UBU, did not “stalk” students for the purposes of club recruitment or “target” or “coach” students on changing their gender identity.

The pair, however, made “deceptive” comments “about the UBU’s club’s purposes or activities” at the conference in Palm Springs, Van Dermyden Makus determined.

A.G. returned to using her original name and uses female pronouns at her high school, the lawsuit said.

A call and email to Caldeira and Pagaran were not returned while a number listed for Baraki was not answered.

The settlement comes as districts, parents and special interests continue to battle over LGBTQ+ rights in schools and parental consent.

A Glendale Unified School meeting in June led to arrests during a clash over Pride Month; right-wing protesters, parents and trans-rights advocates fought during a protest at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood involving a Pride assembly; and Gov. Gavin Newsom called out the Temecula Valley Unified School District over the removal of a book that included mention of gay civil rights icon Harvey Milk.

Bonta sued the Chino Valley Unified School District on Monday and called for an end to a notification policy that requires district employees to inform parents of potential gender identity changes.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.