Geary County teacher Pamela Ricard wins partial victory in pronoun lawsuit

(The Sentinel) – Geary County teacher Pamela Ricard has won an initial victory in her lawsuit against her school district’s pronoun policy.

On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a temporary…

(The Sentinel) – Geary County teacher Pamela Ricard has won an initial victory in her lawsuit against her school district’s pronoun policy.

On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the Geary County Unified School District blocking them from disciplining Ricard if she were to intentionally disclose a student’s “preferred name or pronoun” to a parent.

U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter’s injunction is in force until May 22, 2022, or until Ricard’s contract runs out. Ricard is preparing to take early retirement.

Teeter declined to issue a separate injunction against a school policy requiring staff to refer to students by their preferred name or pronoun after Ricard agreed to refer to them by their preferred name — but not a pronoun inconsistent with biological sex.

Ricard is seeking a permanent injunction and damages in the case.

Teeter did not rule on the merits of the case, in which Ricard alleges civil rights violations — including free speech, due process, and freedom of religion.

Ricard is represented by the Kriegshauser-Ney Law Group and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“We have consistently raised concerns with the school board regarding the district’s vague and unpredictable procedures for student name and gender updates,” Kriegshauser-Ney Partner Joshual Ney said. “Once in court, the school district changed its policy yet again to accommodate Pam’s original request in order to avoid a preliminary injunction. Hopefully the district can begin creating policies that focus on educating children without forcing teachers to lie to parents and violating a parent’s right to know what is going on with their child.”

The background

Ricard filed suit against the district in March of this year after repeatedly failing to have a formal reprimand removed from her record after being disciplined for violating a “policy” that did not actually exist at the time.

According to the lawsuit, 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, and — as noted — the school did not have a formal written policy on pronouns or names at the time.

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

Ricard spent the summer attempting to get the reprimand removed — and to 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 the 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 the 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.