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Teacher gets $95,000 to settle lawsuit over refusal to use student’s preferred name

<i>Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock</i><br/>The teacher received a three-day suspension with pay for violations of 11 district policies.
Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock
Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock
The teacher received a three-day suspension with pay for violations of 11 district policies.

By Rebekah Riess and Alaa Elassar, CNN

A Kansas teacher who argued she had a religious belief that prevented her from calling transgender or nonbinary students by their preferred names and pronouns reached a $95,000 settlement with school district officials, according to a release from the teacher’s attorneys.

Pamela Ricard, who teaches math at Fort Riley Middle School, had been suspended for violating the Geary County Schools’ Diversity and Inclusion Policy that requires educators to refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns. In the lawsuit, she said she refuses to use the preferred names and pronouns of transgender and nonbinary students because it violates her religious beliefs.

In May, the US District Court for the District of Kansas allowed Ricard’s lawsuit to proceed, finding that “she was likely to prevail on her First Amendment free exercise of religion claim, and granted her motion to stop enforcement of the parental communication portion of the district policy,” the release said.

With the settlement, the case was dismissed by the court, according to Ricard’s representatives, Alliance Defending Freedom and Kriegshauser Ney Law Group.

“No school district should ever force teachers to willfully deceive parents or engage in any speech that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Tyson Langhofer, director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom. “We’re pleased to settle this case favorably on behalf of Pam, and we hope that it will encourage school districts across the country to support the constitutionally protected freedom of teachers to teach and communicate honestly with both children and parents.”

A spokeswoman for Geary County Schools confirmed a settlement was reached and declined to comment further.

Ricard had argued in the lawsuit her decision not to use preferred names or pronouns does not harm her students. But LGBTQ organizations and medical associations throughout the country have consistently stressed the detrimental consequences of misgendering children and ignoring their preferred names.

“We know from research, long term, very powerful research, that affirming a young person’s gender leads to better health and well-being,” said Joel Baum, senior director of the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, which supports gender-diverse youth. “This is about the basic rights and dignity of a human being. Your beliefs do not allow you to refuse to acknowledge who a student is.”

According to the suit, after one incident of Ricard using a student’s birth name instead of their preferred name, then principal Shannon Molt sent an email to all teachers at Fort Riley Middle School, saying: “When we have a student that requests to go by a preferred name that is different than their given name, our district honors the request. Once you are aware of a preferred name, use that name for the student.”

Ricard acknowledges in the suit that despite being told that another student who was listed in school records as female preferred to be addressed by a different name, Ricard called the student “Miss [student’s last name].” Ricard was reminded multiple times to use the student’s preferred name and pronouns, but continued to call the student by their last name only.

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

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

The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and the 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 Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, a national organization supporting LGBTQ+ students and educators in K-12 schools.

“Transgender youth are more likely to consider suicide than their peers, and experience other mental health crises which are exacerbated when they face this kind of stigma and erasure in the classroom,” she said.

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