The La Center School District Board of Directors heard from proponents and opponents of a civil rights complaint from teachers against the district during a Jan. 10 special meeting.
The complaint stems from communication to teachers from district Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz who said asking for preferred pronouns through exercises at the start of the academic term is against district policy.
The complaint follows an email Rosenkranz sent out to staff in November. In the email, he told staff they were not able to ask students their pronouns, but were allowed to use different names and pronouns than what was listed in school systems at the student’s request.
After the email, dozens of teachers and community members signed onto a complaint that stated prohibiting teachers from asking pronouns is a violation of civil rights.
In an interview with The Reflector, Rosenkranz said he had received feedback from parents over the introductory exercises where pronouns were asked.
“They’re already trying to determine who they are, that’s a part of school … but it gets confusing when gender is now thrown in the mix,” Rosenkranz said.
Rosenkranz said specific pronouns will be used if a student asks to be identified by them.
“If they’re in the middle of a transition and they want to be called a different name, we’ll honor that,” Rosenkranz said. “But we’re not going to seek that out.”
The superintendent also considered at what grade level it was appropriate to ask students about their preferred pronouns. Rosenkranz said he received feedback about doing that in fourth grade, which is something he “couldn’t allow.”“We’re taking something that’s not in our curriculum, not something that the school should be doing. It’s something families should be doing,” Rosenkranz said.
Rosenkranz said the Jan. 10 meeting was an example of a “civil conversation” which he believes is harder to come by during the current discourse on issues. He noted a number of attendees at the meeting were from outside of the La Center community.
“Anybody’s raised voice was really out of passion,” Rosenkranz said.
He added that while there were “insults thrown here and there,” he believes they were in an effort of “trying to make a point.”
The superintendent said the issue is outside the scope of what the district should focus on.
“Instead of focusing on pronouns, why don’t we focus on reading, writing, math and science, and let these conversations (be) with the family,” Rosenkranz said.
Last week’s hearing was the latest phase in the complaint. After the complaint was filed in November, the district hired an independent investigator to determine whether or not it had violated civil rights.
The investigation, which was published last month, found that in Washington there is “no requirement in law or policy that teachers must canvas all of their students regarding pronoun preference. Similarly the investigator found nowhere in law that prohibits this practice.”
“The investigator believes that the Civil Rights of LGBTQ students, or teachers, are not being violated by the recent directive,” the executive summary of the investigation read.
After that determination, the complaint moved to a higher level, which brought it before the board at the hearing during the meeting. The board has 30 days to determine whether or not there was a violation.
Rosenkranz anticipates a written response from the board earlier than that 30-day timeframe.
Should the board rule against the complaint, the complainants can take the process to a higher level at the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Rosenkranz said following that level of determination, the complaint could be presented before an administrative law judge.
“What’s at stake is not whether to use pronouns or not, it’s whether discrimination occurred,” Rosenkranz said.
Among the teachers who filed the complaint is Minna Thayer, a La Center High School math teacher and adviser for the La Center Genders and Sexualities Alliance. She authored the complaint on behalf of the group of teachers who signed onto it.
At the meeting, Thayer said the majority of those who testified were in support of the complaint. She said the board’s deliberation aligned with what Rosenkranz had argued during the prior process leading up to the meeting.
Thayer said she would be likely to take the complaint to the state superintendent’s office if the La Center School Board comes to a similar determination like the investigation and district superintendent did.
Thayer said the prohibition for teachers to ask pronouns goes counter to what the law allows.
“Any decision also has to follow state regulations, so here is where I think that they fumbled. … They are making a decision that is not going to be OK,” Thayer said.
Thayer said the pronouns question is simply part of a regular exercise for teachers so they can get acclimated to their new students at the beginning of an academic term.
“Anything that the teacher finds would be valuable in class is on these getting to know you activities,” Thayer said.
She said teachers often include an optional question regarding preferred pronouns as part of the exercise.
“It’s optional and it’s private,” Thayer said.
Thayer believes there is a misunderstanding from administration and what teachers are attempting to achieve.
“We really think that it is discrimination and we don’t think the district is seeing that,” Thayer said.
Though there were concerns from some in the community about the practice, preventing any staff-initiated ability to begin the conversation of pronouns is a greater issue, Thayer said.
“The group of teachers really thinks that this is a rule that really negatively and very disproportionately affects only the LGBTQ students,” Thayer said.