WTF is going on at the Douglas County School Board?

Proposed transgender athlete policy, new legal counsel point to upcoming court battles
A photo of Carson Valley Middle School

The mission of the Douglas County School District, according to its website, is “to ensure that all students achieve excellence in education, character, and citizenship, in partnership with parents and the community.”

Furthermore, official policy posted to the school board’s website says, “Douglas County School District (the School District) does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed/religion, color, national or ethnic origin, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity or expression, genetic information, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, age, veterans or military status, or political affiliation in admission to or access to, treatment or employment, or participation in its programs and activities…” (bolded for emphasis)

So, during the board’s May meeting, it might have seemed a little strange to hear this.

“I do not feel like your law firm is aligned with the mission of the current board. As a result, I’m making a motion to place on the June agenda to terminate the contract with our current legal firm, Maupin, Cox and LeGoy,” said School Board President Susan Jansen.

She then added, “Also, for the June agenda that the superintendent as well as Board members are to recommend applicants for new legal counsel, and in the event the district is sued, I’d like to add an agenda item also to be placed on the June agenda to approve the retention of outside counsel to handle that specific matter.”

Maupin, Cox and LeGoy has been representing the board for more than 20 years and has vast experience in education law.

The concern stems from a new transgender athlete policy the board is proposing, which would bar student-athletes from participating in sports’ teams and using locker rooms of their gender identity, instead only allowing them to play sports and use locker rooms of their biological sex.

“The school board members also say that the intention of the policy is just to keep students from going into locker rooms or restrooms or bathrooms of their preferred gender [and] rather go into those kinds of settings based on what their assigned gender at birth is,” said Rocío Hernández, education reporter for the Nevada Independent. She’s been following the developments over the last couple of months.

“The superintendent and the school board themselves even have said that there’s very few students who openly identify as transgender. And even if they do identify as transgender, they do have single use restrooms that they already use. So largely, it doesn’t really sound like there’s a problem here. It doesn’t sound like cis[gender] girls are losing out in sports or being intimidated or harassed at this time,” Hernández told the Sierra Nevada Ally.

It’s unclear if the proposal is legal or fits within current guidelines. Nevada voters last year passed an update to the state’s Equal Rights Amendment, which amended the state Constitution to enshrine equal rights, “regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry, or national origin.” (bolded for emphasis)

Participation in sports is a gray area, though. The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association has no official policy on transgender athletes, instead opting for a “Gender Position Statement” that is meant to be a guideline for schools to follow. The statement says students may participate “on a gender specific sports team that is consistent with the public gender identity of that student for all other purposes.”

“They do have this rubric that they could follow if they choose, just to make sure that the student is identifying as their gender, and that’s the reason why they want to participate in a certain team. But it doesn’t necessarily say districts have to block certain students from being part of certain sports teams,” Hernández said.

Ultimately, the decision on allowing transgender students to participate in gender specific sports is first left to the schools. If the Douglas County School Board’s transgender policy eventually does pass, the ACLU of Nevada has already said it will file a lawsuit.

Enter ‘the fighter’

A screenshot of the website for Joey Gilbert Law, taken July 27, 2023.

During July’s meeting of the school board, trustees voted 4-2 in favor of hiring Reno-based Joey Gilbert’s law firm to replace Maupin, Cox and LeGoy. Gilbert ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022, even challenging the results of the contest. That move eventually cost him $250,000 in attorney fees and sanctions. He was also a participant in the January 6th rally at the U.S. Capitol that turned into an insurrection, although he has said on the record that he never entered the Capitol building. He has also been reprimanded by the Nevada State Bar for misconduct.

Remember, the school board terminated its previous legal representation because it didn’t align with the board’s mission. So, how does Gilbert fit in? Back in May, around the time trustees were first discussing their proposed transgender policy, Joey Gilbert posted this clip to Instagram.

In this Instagram clip, Joey Gilbert says, “When your son or daughter says they don’t think that they’re a girl or a boy, politely tell them, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re a girl.’ And then say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re a boy.’ It’s really that simple. Let them progress naturally through puberty and then when they’re 25 or so and the frontal lobe of their brain is developed, if they then want to revisit their gender dysphoria or confusion issues, we’ll talk about it then. But until then, we’re going to leave it alone.”

Additionally, when looking for new legal representation, the Douglas County School District skipped the traditional request for proposal, or RFP, process, only hearing the offer from Gilbert.

Parents and community members have overwhelmingly shown their disdain for this process, and have called out Gilbert’s lack of experience in education law. Gilbert told the board that he is building up a team of experts, taking classes and will retain the services of other experienced lawyers, including Maupin, Cox & LeGoy.

“A lot of people were upset about that, because they wanted to see the district consider multiple takes. Some people said, ‘If Joey Gilbert were to come out on top, great, but we want to see other options as well.’ And it didn’t sound like the school board was willing to talk to anyone else but Joey Gilbert. But they also didn’t say if anyone else had tried to apply, or why specifically they looked out for Joey Gilbert,” Hernández said.

With the board only interviewing Joey Gilbert’s law firm for the job, it seems like the decision was already made.

“That’s what a lot of people’s feelings were at the meeting,” Hernández said. “At one point, someone alluded that they’re probably not even going to listen to public comment, because four trustees had already decided what they wanted to do.”

Even without education law experience, Gilbert’s firm plans to charge the district a higher rate than its previous legal representation. According to Hernández’s reporting, Maupin, Cox & LeGoy charged the district a monthly retainer fee of $5,000 for general business and $225 an hour for litigation and special projects. Gilbert’s firm is planning to charge a $7,500 monthly retainer fee and $325 for each additional hour.

“You do have to remember that the legal counsel that the district had before had been with them for a long time, so it probably was at a discounted rate,” Hernández said. “So even if the district had considered keeping its legal counsel, that price might have gone up now just to reflect today’s day and age and inflation and all that.”

Putting culture wars over education?

According to Hernández’s reporting, Board President Susan Jansen herself has said that just 0.3% of district students identify as transgender, which comes out to about 16 students. That’s one fewer openly transgender student than the number of schools in the district (17).

So why does there seem to be such a focus on an issue that is contentious and seemingly non-urgent? Hernández said community members are wondering that exact thing.

“They’re concerned that the school board’s trying to take up issues that aren’t really in its purview,” she said. “They [parents, community] want to see them focusing on students’ mental health, students’ safety, grades, academic achievement, and not necessarily putting themselves in the spotlight for a policy that maybe is out their hands and should be handled at the state level or even the federal level.”

According to the Nevada Department of Education, more than 65% of district students in grades 3-8 don’t meet math standards, and nearly three-quarters of high school juniors in the Douglas County School District are not proficient in math as they prepare for college. Those numbers are still better than statewide averages.

Remember the district’s mission “to ensure that all students achieve excellence in education, character, and citizenship, in partnership with parents and the community.” In the coming months, the board will make it clear how they identify those goals.

The next board meeting takes place Tuesday, Aug. 8 at 4pm, with a location to be announced.

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