Kansas teacher sues school officials for forcing her to address students by their preferred names, saying the policy violates her religious freedom

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Pamela Ricard, who teaches math at Fort Riley Middle School, says she refuses to use names and pronouns preferred by transgender and non-binary students because it violates her religious beliefs.

After being disciplined multiple times for refusing to use a student’s preferred name, Ricard filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the Geary County Schools Unified School District.

In the lawsuit, she argues that denying requests to ignore students’ preferred names and pronouns ‘deprived her of due process and equal protection of the law’ and violated her rights. of the First Amendment to freedom of expression and the exercise of religion. Ricard also accused the defendants of breaking their contract with her.

Ricard argues in the lawsuit that his decision does no harm to his students, but LGBTQ organizations and medical associations across the country have consistently pointed out the harmful consequences of gender-neutral children and ignoring their favorite names.

According to Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, a national organization that supports LGBTQ+ students and educators in K-12 schools, gendering a child can have a serious impact on their self-confidence. and his mental health.

“Mrs. Ricard’s faith teaches her that God immutably creates each person as male or female,” the lawsuit states.

“We proposed a neutral policy to the district more than eight months ago that would allow teachers to uniformly address students by their registered names,” Josh Ney, Ricard’s attorney, told CNN. “This proposal was summarily denied by the district, so we filed this lawsuit due to the constant threat of termination hanging over my client’s head.”

Fort Riley Middle School did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN. Mark Edwards, the legal counsel representing the Geary County Schools Unified School District, told CNN he had no comment.

According to the lawsuit, after an incident where Ricard used a student’s birth name instead of his preferred name, principal Shannon Molt emailed all teachers at Fort Riley Middle School on March 31, saying “When we have a student who requests to go by a preferred name that is different from their first name, our district honors the request. Once you are aware of a preferred name, use that name for the student.

Ricard acknowledges in the lawsuit that despite being told that another student who appeared in school records as female preferred to be addressed by a different name, Ricard referred to the student as “Miss [student’s last name].” Ricard was repeatedly reminded to use the student’s preferred name and pronouns, but continued to address the student only by his surname.

In April 2021, the lawsuit says Ricard received a three-day suspension with pay for violating 11 district policies, including rules on bullying and diversity and inclusion. Several appeals were denied by school officials, according to the lawsuit.

“Any policy that requires Ms. Ricard to refer to a student with a gendered, non-binary, or plural pronoun (e.g., he/him, she/her, they/them, zhe/zher, etc.) or a greeting (M. . , Mademoiselle, Mme) or other gendered language different from the student’s biological sex actively violates Ms. Ricard’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit states.

Ricard could face “further disciplinary action,” including termination, if she continues to violate the policy, according to the lawsuit.

“I continue to love teaching my students day in and day out, but the stigma of being officially called a ‘bully’ just for using a student’s registered last name has been disheartening,” Ricard told CNN in an email. “I love all of my students, but I shouldn’t have to contradict my core beliefs to teach math in a public school.”

“It is about the fundamental rights and the dignity of a human being”

In the suit, Ricard says not using a student’s preferred pronouns “does not interfere with the effective operation of a school” or “create a hostile learning environment.”

However, LGBTQ organizations that support and advocate for student rights, as well as major health associations in the United States, strongly disagree with this perspective.

“We know from research, long-term and very powerful research, that affirming a young person’s gender leads to better health and well-being,” said Joel Baum, senior director of the non-profit organization Gender Spectrum, which supports young people of diverse gender identities. “These are fundamental rights and the dignity of a human being. Your beliefs do not allow you to refuse to recognize who is a student.”

The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and Pediatric Endocrine Society, along with dozens of other medical associations, have officially recognized the importance of affirming a young person’s name and pronouns, Baum said.

LGBTQ youth who attend schools where they are not protected by policies preventing discrimination against them “report lower GPAs and are more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe,” said Willingham-Jaggers to CNN.

“Transgender youth are more likely to consider suicide than their peers and experience other mental health crises that are exacerbated when faced with this type of stigma and erasure in the classroom,” he said. she declared.

Yet transgender youth across the country continue to face discrimination when they try to stand up for who they are or speak up when they feel threatened.

In Kansas alone, more than 50% of LGBTQ+ high school students who experience bullying don’t report the incident for fear it will escalate the situation, according to GLSEN Kansas Statewide organizer Will Rapp.

“This incident is not an isolated issue. According to GLSEN research, more than 40% of transgender students in Kansas report not being able to use the name of their choice and the correct pronouns at school,” Rapp told CNN. “When educators express this kind of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, it sends the message that school is not a safe place and that many LGBTQ+ youth and especially transgender youth feel unable to approach trusted educators. for help.”

“Every educator should be held accountable for creating a safe and nurturing environment for all students, regardless of gender identity,” Rapp said.

In addition to not being able to use their preferred names and pronouns, 85% of transgender students said they had been harassed or assaulted at school, according to GLSEN.

A need for stronger policies and training

Ricard argues in his lawsuit that the district’s policy on nouns and pronouns has been inconsistent and does not provide teachers with clear guidance on determining a student’s and parents’ preferences.

Following its initial suspension in April 2021, the school sent out a “Use of Preferred Names and Pronouns” guidance document that asked staff members to share the student’s request with administrators or counselors and to respect the chosen pronouns, according to the trial.

In September 2021, the school board of the Geary County Schools Unified School District also passed an addition to the district’s diversity and inclusion policy to require educators to refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns, says the trial.

Ricard’s requests for religious accommodations that would exempt him from following guidelines and policies were denied, according to the lawsuit.

“This idea of ​​religious exemption, just because you’re not comfortable with something, goes against so many aspects of public education,” Baum said. “Imagine if a science teacher who believes the world was created in six days isn’t comfortable teaching evolution. That wouldn’t fly. Beliefs are one thing, and conduct is one. other.”

Transgender students in the United States face barriers that go far beyond the classroom.

Arkansas last year became the first state to ban gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy, for minors. West Virginia also signed a bill in 2021, which has been temporarily stalled, that banned transgender girls and women from participating in high school or high school sports teams for girls and women.
A Texas judge on Friday also blocked the state from enforcing Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate minors’ gender-affirming care as “child abuse,” which parents and advocates say criticized as another attack on transgender children.

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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