Mar 13, 2024 - News

Scoop: Transgender teacher sues Peoria school district for discrimination

Illustration of columns in the colors of the transgender pride flag.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A transgender and nonbinary teacher has sued the Peoria Unified School District and two of its board members in federal court alleging harassment and discrimination, Axios has learned.

The big picture: Debates over transgender issues, particularly those involving schools and children, have roiled the state over the past few years.

Catch up quick: Last July, River Chunnui, a teacher at Desert Harbor Elementary School, filed a notice of claim against the district, a procedural step required before a government entity can be sued. A lawsuit was filed last Friday.

  • Chunnui is seeking compensation for sex discrimination, free speech violations, creation of a hostile workplace environment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other counts.
  • Their attorney, Jacqueline Mendez Soto, declined to comment on the amount of monetary damages they're seeking.
  • The district and board members, one of whom is no longer in office, haven't yet been served with the lawsuit and had no comment, a spokesperson told Axios.

According to the lawsuit, Chunnui sent an email to colleagues in March 2022 informing them that it was International Transgender Day of Visibility and advising how to support participating students.

  • Chunnui, who went by the name Sarah at the time, uses they/them pronouns and identifies themselves in the lawsuit as both transgender and nonbinary.
  • An online news outlet published an article about the email and included a photo of Chunnui reading the book "Pink Is for Boys" to students.

Zoom in: The district then ordered Chunnui not to return to work until further notice and informed them three days later that they were being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into unspecified allegations of unprofessional conduct, the lawsuit stated.

  • Chunnui was allowed to return to work in June 2022 after the investigation concluded they hadn't violated any laws or district policies. However, they were ordered to refrain from using district computers for personal use.
  • The lawsuit states that Chunnui was subjected to denigrating public comments by district governing board member Heather Rooks and board candidate Rebecca Hill, who cast the teacher "as a danger to children and a sexual groomer."
  • After Hill's November 2022 election, she and Rooks attempted to terminate Chunnui's employment contract but were outvoted during a March 9 board meeting, according to the lawsuit.

Between the lines: Chunnui alleges they were singled out for leave, a "humiliating" investigation and restrictions on school computer use because of their gender identity.

  • Rooks and Hill's attacks have also subjected Chunnui to harassment, threats and vandalism to their home and car, the lawsuit stated.
  • As a result, the teacher has "suffered humiliation, distress, loss of enjoyment of life, reputational harm, and inconvenience," according to the lawsuit.

The other side: Hill and Rooks did not respond to inquiries from Axios.

  • Rooks is still a member of the district's board, while Hill resigned her seat last year.
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