Teacher suspended over pronouns gets damages and disciplinary action removed

(The Sentinel) – A Fort Riley, Kansas, teacher who was suspended for refusing to use a student’s “preferred pronouns” has reached a settlement agreement with Geary County Schools, USD 475,…

(The Sentinel) – A Fort Riley, Kansas, teacher who was suspended for refusing to use a student’s “preferred pronouns” has reached a settlement agreement with Geary County Schools, USD 475, which will see her good name restored and is awarded $95,000 in damages.

As part of the agreement, school officials will have to issue a statement that the long-time math teacher, Pamela Ricard, was in good standing without any disciplinary actions against her at the time of her retirement in May of 2022.

“No school district should ever force teachers to willfully deceive parents or engage in any speech that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in a release. “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.”

The background

During the spring semester of 2021, USD 475 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.’”

In March of this year, Ricard filed suit to clear her name.

This is in spite of the fact, her lawsuit contended, 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.

Policy on pronouns shifted with the winds

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.

Ricard won a partial victory in May

In May 2022, a federal judge partially sided with Ricard in the case, issuing 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 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, citing the fact that Ricard was preparing to take early retirement, nor did she rule on the merits of the case which alleged civil rights violations — including free speech, due process, and freedom of religion.

Joshua Ney, a partner at Kriegshauser Ney Law Group and one of more than 4,400 attorneys in the ADF Attorney Network, who helped mitigate the case, said the case was about fundamental rights.

“This case provides straightforward lessons for Kansas school boards: Schools shouldn’t lie to parents, and teachers don’t forfeit their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door,” Ney said “The Geary County School District unsuccessfully tried to convince a federal court that a teacher should completely avoid using a child’s name during a parent-teacher conference in order to hide new names and genders being used by the school for a child in a classroom. Absurdity and deception has its limits, especially in federal court. I’m glad the case clarifies the financial stakes for school boards if they attempt to force teachers to lie to parents about their students.”