A long-time teacher in Fort Riley is suing her district after being reprimanded and suspended for refusing to use a student’s “preferred pronouns.”

According to the federal lawsuit filed by Pamela Ricard earlier this week, during the spring semester of 2021, USD 475 in Geary County middle school administrators issued “diversity and equity” training materials directing instructors to use “preferred names” instead of the student’s legal name or name of record.

On April 9, 2021, Ricard was suspended and on April 15, a formal reprimand — citing the school’s “bullying” policies — was placed in her file after she referred to a biologically female student by the student’s legal last name.

“Prior to addressing the student by the student’s last name, Ricard had been informed by email by the school counselor (that) the student preferred to be called by an alternate first name different from the student’s legal and enrolled first name,” the lawsuit reads. “Although the school counselor, when notifying Ms. Ricard of the student’s new preferred first name in his email to Ricard, had referred to the student as ‘she’ (consistent with the student’s biological sex), Ms. Ricard was later told by the student’s classmate that the student’s preferred pronouns were ‘he/him.'”

This is in spite of the fact, the lawsuit contends, that the student in question never directly asked Ricard to use a different name or pronoun — nor did the school have a formal written policy on pronouns or names at the time.

Requests for a religious exemption by Ricard were also apparently summarily dismissed.

“The school district disciplined Ms. Ricard not for something she said, but for something she couldn’t say,” Ricard’s attorney Josh Ney said in a release. “The Geary County school district has engaged in unconstitutional targeting of my client over the past year while inconsistently attempting to enforce successive drafts of its new pronoun policies and ‘equity’ training initiatives.”

Ricard spent the summer attempting to get the reprimand removed — and be allowed a religious exemption — from her record through the district’s grievance process and all were rebuffed by the Geary County School Board.

Policies on preferred pronouns bounce around

According to the lawsuit, on April 21 — after Ricard’s suspension, but backdated to April 14 — the district issued a policy stating: “The building administration or counselor will speak with the student to confirm the request and provide awareness of the request. The building administration or counselor will advise the student that their preferred name and pronouns will be utilized by staff in the building. The building administration will explain to the student that every effort will be made to remember their preferred name and pronouns; however, patience and understanding will be required.  The building administration will contact the parents/guardians of the student to Inform [sic] them that the school will honor the request of the student.” (emphasis added in lawsuit)

However, in October of last year, the policy evolved again, stating: “Students will be called by their preferred name and pronoun. This means if a student makes a request of a staff member to call them by a name other than their legal name as noted in the student information system- Skyward, the staff member(s) will respect the student’s wishes and refer to them with the indicated preferred name. USD 475 will not communicate this information to parents unless the student requests the administration or counselor to do so, per Federal FERPA Guidance.” (emphasis added in lawsuit)

The initial guidance is similar to what is currently being used in the Olathe school district and which has been challenged by the Olathe NEA chapter and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Just wants her name cleared

It is notable that Ricard, in her lawsuit, is not asking for monetary damages — just attorney’s fees.  Rather, she’s merely asking that records of her suspension and the formal letter of reprimand be removed from her record, that she be given a religious exemption to the policies and a formal letter of apology from the board.

She is also asking the board be ordered to adopt a “neutral policy” that would allow her and other teachers to address students by the names listed in the district’s official enrollment records — which would not prevent staff who wished to do so from using a student’s “preferred” pronouns and names.

Ricard may well have precedent on her side. 

According to a story in the Sunflower State Journal, several cases within the last year have addressed the issue.

Indeed, a Virginia Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of a gym teacher who was suspended after refusing to refer to transgender students by their pronouns, and the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling that Loudon County Public Schools violated the free speech rights of a teacher by suspending him after he talked about the issue at a school board meeting.

Additionally, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court ruled that an Ohio professor could sue a university for violating his constitutional rights after he was disciplined for refusing to use the pronouns of a transgender student.

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