It was early December when Amber Lavigne found her 13-year-old daughter’s chest binder.
The undergarment, used to flatten a female’s breasts to make her appear more like a male, looked like a tank top with a built-in bra, Lavigne said. And it smelled. Bad. In her efforts to hide it from her family, Lavigne’s daughter hadn’t put the binder in the laundry for weeks.
That night, when Lavigne picked her daughter up from a school dance, she asked if she was wearing a chest binder. She wasn’t, the girl said, but she admitted she had one. Where had she gotten it? From a friend, she claimed. Lavigne was skeptical.
“I want you to think long and hard if there’s anything else you want to share with me about this,” she said she told her daughter, “because I am going to reach out to your friend’s mom.”
Later that night, Lavigne’s daughter did have more to share. She hadn’t received the chest binder from a friend after all. “This came from my school,” she said, Lavigne recalled.
Lavigne would later learn that earlier in the year, without her knowledge, her daughter had been reassigned to a new social worker at Great Salt Bay Community School in Maine. This social worker, she learned, had been advising her daughter about gender transitioning. He had provided her daughter with the chest binder, telling the girl that he wouldn’t tell her mother, and she didn’t need to either. She also learned that school personnel had been involved in socially transitioning her daughter, referring to her by a new name and by male pronouns.
No one had bothered to notify Lavigne.
Lavigne demanded answers, but for the most part, she said, school district leaders and school-board members have been defensive and evasive. She is now represented by lawyers from the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, who argue that the school’s actions are unconstitutional and violate Lavigne’s rights as a parent to direct the education, upbringing, and health care of her child.
Last week, the Goldwater Institute sent a demand letter to the chairman of the Great Salt Bay school board, calling for an investigation into the counselor’s actions, and calling for the board to update its policies to make it clear that parents must be informed of any decisions affecting the mental health and physical well-being of their children.
“Parents aren’t going to be able to effectively ensure the safety of their kids if they’re missing out on critical information involving their kids,” said Goldwater Institute lawyer Adam Shelton.
Lavigne joins a growing list of parents across the country taking legal action and calling out school leaders for keeping them in the dark about important health issues involving their children, including evidence of possible gender dysphoria. If schools are aware that children in their care are struggling with their mental health, it is critical that parents be aware, they say.
Some transgender activists, on the other hand, say parents aren’t entitled to know if their child wants to change their name and pronouns at school, arguing that knowledge must be earned by parents. Parents who don’t immediately affirm their child’s new gender identity are engaged in a form of abuse, they say.
School-district and board leaders in Great Salt Bay have mostly been tight-lipped about Lavigne’s case. In a letter to community members last month, they claimed that “certain parties are spreading a grossly inaccurate and one-sided story,” but they said they can’t legally respond, for confidentiality reasons. They also linked the allegedly “false narrative,” to two recent bomb threats at the school. “Those promoting this false narrative,” they said in the letter, “are apparently disturbed by our school’s ongoing and steadfast commitment to providing all students with safe and equal access to educational opportunities without discrimination because of, among other things, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, as the Maine Human Rights Act requires.”
Multiple attempts by National Review to reach school-board chairman Samuel Belknap III, superintendent Lynsey Johnston, and principal Kim Shaff on the phone and via email were unsuccessful. School-board member Meridith Verney declined to comment when reached on her cellphone, directing questions to Belknap. Attempts to reach the other board members on the phone were also unsuccessful. The Maine Wire, a conservative news website, reported this week that Johnston and Belknap have “attacked journalists” in the past for reporting on the story and have accused them of “inciting terroristic threats against the school.”
‘This is Happening Everywhere’
While she has received support from local Republican groups, Lavigne said she is no religious fanatic or right-wing culture warrior. Rather, she’s a Democrat who runs a mental-health-services business in Damariscotta, a small coastal town in Maine best known for its oysters. Her business has worked with transgender clients over the years, she said.
“I’m a pretty open-minded person,” she said, though she said that’s not how she’s been portrayed by school leaders. Lavigne also has two young sons who are four and one.
Last fall, Lavigne’s 13-year-old daughter started eighth grade at Great Salt Bay Community School, which she’s attended since fifth grade. Although she’s struggling with her gender identity now, Lavigne said that when her daughter was young, she was a girly-girl who liked painting her fingernails and putting on makeup.
“That’s one of the most bizarre things about this,” she said. “I wanted so badly for my daughter to be an athlete, because I was an athlete; I was a wicked tomboy growing up. I’m like, she’s going to be a basketball superstar. I couldn’t get this kid to pick up a frigging baseball and throw it at me to save her life. She was into tutus and My Little Ponies.”
But she said her daughter’s girliness started to fade when puberty hit. She presented more as a tomboy, Lavigne said. Lavigne described her daughter as “a little quirky,” and said her friend group includes other “quirky” kids. She said she was fine with that, but she was surprised to learn that some of her daughter’s friends, even as tweens, were exploring their sexual identities.
“The first time I really started to hear her discuss gender ideology in general, she started talking about a friend being pansexual, and another friend being polysexual. I’m like, why are we talking sexual right now? You’re 11,” Lavigne said, adding that at 11 she was “more concerned about getting a game of pickup basketball going than I [was] about the boys in my class.”
When asked if she thought her daughter’s gender confusion could be related to a social contagion, Lavigne said, “110 percent.”
Lavigne said that at the end of her daughter’s seventh-grade year, a school social worker reached out to tell her that her daughter had come to see her. They met and chatted about some of the mental-health issues her daughter was dealing with, including some gender-identity issues. But Lavigne said she came away thinking it wasn’t a very serious issue.
“I have people in my life who work in other public schools in Maine. This is happening everywhere: One day this girl is declaring she’s a boy, and a week later she’s deciding she’s not,” she said. And as someone who works in the mental-health field, Lavigne said she considered it a “beautiful thing” that the school had social workers for struggling kids.
When Lavigne’s daughter started eighth grade, she continued seeing that same social worker. But Lavigne said she has since learned that in October, her daughter was reassigned to another social worker, Samuel Roy, or “Mr. Sam,” as her daughter called him.
Lavigne said school leaders never informed her of the change, and Roy never reached out. Attempts by National Review to reach Roy via email were unsuccessful.
Shelton, the Goldwater Institute lawyer, said the details of Roy’s counseling are still unclear. “What we know is that he gave her a chest binder, and that he told her that he wasn’t going to tell her parents, and that she didn’t need to either,” Shelton said.
Lavigne said that on the Friday night in December after she discovered the chest binder in her daughter’s room, and after her daughter told her she’d gotten it at school, she emailed Johnston and Shaff. She said Shaff, the principal, called her the next morning. Shaff wanted more details about the binder and what, exactly, was in it, she said. “Because in her mind I’m talking about, like, a three-ring binder, something you should find in a school,” Lavigne said.
“We had a phone conversation Saturday morning. I poured my heart out to this woman,” Lavigne said. “She absolutely validated my feelings and made me feel like something was going to be done. And I demanded a meeting Monday morning with the superintendent and the principal, which they followed through with. And they both sat there and expressed grave concern for what happened with my daughter.”
Lavigne said she left the meeting expecting that action would be taken. Johnston and Shaff were meeting with Roy, the social worker, on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Lavigne said, the school leaders seemed to have changed the perspective. They were supporting Roy, they weren’t answering Lavigne’s questions, and they refused to turn over any records, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Lavigne attended a school-board meeting in December looking for answers, but she got none. She is now homeschooling her daughter.
“These people had no desire to work with me as a human being,” she said of the school board and school-district leaders.
‘Parents Should Know’
The right of parents to control the education, upbringing, and health-care decisions for their children has been recognized by the Supreme Court for a century now, Shelton argues, pointing to two 1920s-era court cases. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the court found that a state ban on teaching certain languages was a violation of parental rights. Similarly, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a challenge to Oregon’s ban on private schools, the court ruled that parents have the right to “direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”
“What we’re saying, what that entails is, in order for a parent to be able to choose what school to send their kid to, in order for that to actually be a real choice about where and how to educate their children, they have to know what is going on at the public schools,” Shelton said.
By assisting in a social transition and providing Lavigne’s daughter with a chest binder, school officials were involving themselves in mental and physical health-care decisions with long-term consequences that would likely impact Lavigne and her family.
“We’re talking about a situation of a chest binder, socially transitioning the daughter, which eventually, I think the point of all of that would be to lead to a full-on gender reassignment surgery,” Shelton said. “The school’s not going to pay for that.”
In one of its letters, the school board says it must abide by Maine law, which says that students have the right to access mental-health services without their parents’ consent and the right to establish a confidential counseling relationship with a school-based mental-health provider.
Shelton agrees that Lavigne’s daughter had a right to meet with Roy confidentially, but, he noted, “the social transitioning involved the entire school as a whole, not just the counselor.”
He argues that school officials overstepped their bounds when they started taking active steps to encourage or assist Lavigne’s daughter with a social transition.
“That’s the big difference for us, when it goes from kind of listening and just hearing to actively doing something in support of it,” Shelton said. “Once you go into that active situation, you have to at least inform parents about what’s going on with their children, because if this is something that’s going to be a large, life-changing decision, parents should know so parents can support their children.”
‘This Is My Baby Girl’
Lavigne said her relationship with school leaders is akin to the most toxic relationship she’s ever been in. “They’re gaslighting me,” she said. “They’re essentially saying this woman reacted to something that one of our employees did, and because she’s reacting to this thing that this employee did — that he shouldn’t have done — we’re getting bomb threats.”
Lavigne said that since she’s come forward, she’s been the focus on hateful social-media posts and ugly accusations in the generally left-wing community. There are some stores in town she’s not shopping at anymore because she said she feels unwelcome and judged by staff members.
The ordeal has also strained her relationship with her daughter, who is still struggling with her gender identity, Lavigne said. “She’s having a hard time, because she thinks that she’s a boy, and I’m not allowing her to make life-altering decisions right now that are irreversible,” Lavigne said. “And I think, for her, that’s just me being an unsupportive mom.”
Ultimately, Lavigne blames the school.
“It truly is like the epitome of driving a wedge between a child and their parents,” she said.
Lavigne said she is allowing her daughter to express her male gender identity in age-appropriate ways, including cutting her hair short. Lavigne said she believes in mother’s intuition, and her intuition is that her daughter is still her daughter at heart.
She said she still sees her act in feminine ways, at least when she’s not thinking about it. After her daughter cut her hair, she said, “we left the barbershop, and she is like skipping down the steps with her hands floating like a fairy.”
If her daughter gets through her childhood and still feels that she is a boy, Lavigne said she will support her decisions, because “it’s my kid.”
“If she at 18 starts taking testosterone and decides to mutilate her body, am I going to express to her some concerns? Absolutely,” she said. “Am I going to write my kiddo off? Never in a million years. This is my baby girl. At the end of the day, I’m not going to destroy my relationship with my child to be right.”
“At the end of the day, she is who she is,” Lavigne said of her daughter. “If she thinks she’s going to live a more fulfilled life as a male, that’s up for her to decide as an adult. At 13, it’s up to me to safeguard my child against doing things to her body that she can’t reverse.”
More from National Review