A lawsuit against Loudoun County Public Schools has been filed on behalf of Leesburg Elementary School physical education teacher Byron “Tanner” Cross after he was placed on paid administrative leave last week.
Ashburn attorney Tyson C. Langhofer and D.C. attorney J. Caleb Dalton filed the suit in Loudoun County Circuit Court on Tuesday.
Both attorneys are part of Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona legal nonprofit focused on First Amendment issues as well as “parental rights” and the “sanctity of life,” according to its website.
Cross was placed on leave Thursday, May 27, two days after he told the Loudoun County School Board he would not refer to transgender students by their chosen names or pronouns.
He said during the May 25 School Board meeting that he “will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl, and vice versa,” citing his Christian faith as his reasoning.
“I love all of my students, but I will never lie to them regardless of consequences,” he said.
According to LGBTQ+ media monitoring group GLAAD, gender identity is one’s “internal, personal sense of being a man or woman (or boy or girl),” and does not necessarily correlate with the sex one was assigned at birth.
Cross’ comments were in response to the school system’s draft Policy 8040, “Rights of Transgender and Gender-Expansive Students, which the School Board’s Pupil Services Committee is in the process of drafting.
The draft policy mandates that LCPS staff “allow gender-expansive or transgender students to use their chosen name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence,” something Cross said “will damage children and defile the holy image of God.”
LCPS already governs staff behavior related to gender issues in Policy 1040, “Equal Opportunity for Equitable, Safe and Inclusive Environment,” which the board adopted Jan. 14.
While Policy 1040 makes no mention of gender pronouns or asserted names, it prohibits “[d]emeaning or otherwise harmful actions” on the basis of “sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” among other criteria.
According to the lawsuit, the school system’s actions against Cross have “chilled” his speech and “retaliated against [him] for exercising his rights under the Virginia Constitution.” It also asserts that Cross’ right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been “deterred.”
The suit directs that Tanner be reinstated to his post, that any evidence of discipline against him be scrubbed from his personnel files and that LCPS not further punish Cross “for expressing his views on gender-identity education policy.” It also seeks nominal and compensatory damages.
Further, the lawsuit includes a temporary restraining order against the School Board, LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler and Interim Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Talent Development (HRTD) Lucia Villa Sebastian.
Cross learned of his suspension from Alix Smith, HRTD supervisor for equity, compliance and respectful workplace, according to the suit.
When Cross asked why he was being placed on leave, Smith allegedly handed him a folder with a letter from Villa Sebastian.
Villa Sebastian’s letter said Cross’ paid leave was “pending an investigation of allegations that [Cross] engaged in conduct that has had a disruptive impact on the operations of Leesburg Elementary School.”
Langhofer sent a letter to Sebastian on May 28, demanding that LCPS rescind Cross’ suspension so that he could return to class on June 1, that the letter notifying Cross of his leave be removed from his personnel file, and that the school system “refrain from any future retaliation against protected speech.”
Stacy Haney of Haney Phinyowattanachip, a Richmond education law firm, responded via email later that day, declining Langhofer’s request on behalf of LCPS.
Haney’s email claimed that on the day after Cross spoke to the School Board, “there was significant disruption at Leesburg Elementary School, including multiple complaints and parents requesting that Mr. Cross have no contact with their children because of his comments.”
The suit conversely says that Cross’ comments “did not interfere with the performance of his duties as a teacher at Leesburg Elementary.”
The letters from Villa Sebastian, Langhofer and Haney are all included in the suit as attachments.
LCPS Public Information Officer Wayde Byard declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Pastor Gary Hamrick of Leesburg’s Cornerstone Chapel said during a Sunday sermon that LCPS’s actions against Cross have led him to support an ongoing recall effort against six School Board members.
Those members are Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District), Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District), Beth Barts (Leesburg District), Denise Corbo (At-Large), Leslee King (Broad Run District) and Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District).
Hamrick began by saying he was initially hesitant to let signatures to petition for the recalls be gathered in his church, which he was first asked to do several weeks prior to Sunday.
But then he saw that Cross — who attends Cornerstone Chapel with his wife — was placed on leave for his public remarks.
“...now it’s personal, so guess what my decision is about recalling the School Board members,” Hamrick said, prompting loud applause and cheers from the congregation.
He added, “I mean, this is out of control. Somebody steps up, free speech, lovingly talks about how, by his faith, he has to be true to reality, and for that he’s placed on administrative leave.”
Hamrick further accused some School Board members of “emotionally abusing our children by perpetuating the lie about gender confusion when they affirm pronouns that are contrary to biology, reality and the beautiful design of God.”
Advocates of the recall effort collected signatures in the church’s atrium after the service. Hamrick told congregants they were “free to sign the petition or not.”
“We’re just letting you know what’s going on, we’re making you aware of it, and then you can decide for yourself,” he said.
The Loudoun County Democratic Committee responded to Hamrick’s address in a Sunday press release, calling on Hamrick to “recant his allegations due to the libelous and inflammatory nature of the remarks.”
The Committee criticized Hamrick for “opening his chapel’s atrium to political campaigning, and invoking the name of God to incite political action.”
“Furthermore, this irresponsible accusation of child abuse minimizes and tarnishes the people and organizations that seek to protect our children,” the release reads.
While Hamrick, his congregation and others in the community have vocally supported Cross, others found his words to the school board worrisome.
In a recent Times-Mirror letter to the editor, Leesburg Elementary parent Cris Candice Tuck said that refusing to use a child’s chosen pronouns or asserted name is “child abuse” — the same label others have designated to the opposite action.
“Failing to affirm a child can be detrimental to their mental health and lead to a rise in suicidal idealization, depression, and anxiety,” wrote Tuck, who is on the Board of Directors of Equality Loudoun. “It can turn a classroom from a safe place into one in which a child is afraid to participate or learn.”
A 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using young people’s chosen names was correlated to decreases in depressive and suicidal behavior, as well as suicidal ideation.
“I do not think that [Cross] should bring his personal beliefs into the workplace,” Caroline Bennett-Davis, another LES parent and former public school teacher, told the Times-Mirror. “I’m not trying to quieten anyone’s opinions or morals or religious viewpoints. I just want our children to be able to go to a school and to learn and to feel safe and accepted for who they are.”
Cross may not enter any LCPS buildings or grounds during his leave, nor is he permitted to attend school-sponsored or extracurricular activities regardless of location, according to court documents.
He may, however, submit a written request to LES Principal Shawn Lacey to visit LCPS property or attend school-related events.