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Educators worry Independence School District's pronoun policy harms LGBTQ students

A school locker at Manual Technical School in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

The Missouri school district says teachers must have parental permission before referring to their students by names or pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth.

A middle school teacher in the Independence School District has 10 students who have asked to go by names or pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth.

But according to district policy, staff members can’t honor those requests.

Instead, teachers need parental consent to use students’ preferred pronouns in the classroom, and none of the 10 students felt comfortable having the school ask their parents for permission.

“School is a place where all students should feel safe and supported, but the district is more concerned about parents than they are about students,” said the teacher, who requested The Beacon not use their name for fear of being fired.

The district confirmed the basics of the policy in an emailed response, but did not make anyone available to answer follow-up questions.

“Students under the age of 18 may be referred to by their preferred pronoun in the classroom with parental consent,” said a statement emailed by spokesperson Morgan Stoyanov. “Students 18 and older are able to consent to changing their preferred pronouns by working with building administration.

“We believe strongly in partnering with parents and guardians on issues impacting their children. The Independence School District focuses on creating a safe and healthy learning environment for all students and staff.”

Yet teachers and advocates fear the policy can cause the opposite.

Luz María Henríquez, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said revealing students’ sexual orientation or gender identity to parents can come with “dramatic consequences.”

“It could lead to the student being physically abused. … it could lead to the student being thrown out of their home,” she said. “The fear of just being outed … could lead to the student’s self harm or suicide.”

Legal basis unclear for Independence pronoun policy

The middle school teacher and another district educator — who works in a different Independence school and asked to remain anonymous for the same reason — said administrators conveyed the policy verbally and the details of how it should be implemented or enforced weren’t clear.

District officials cited legal concerns and said the policy will be in place “until the law changes,” without explaining which statute they believe requires the policy, the middle school teacher said.

By comparison, Kansas City Public Schools, which would fall under most of the same Missouri laws as Independence, has a board policy that requires using students’ preferred names and pronouns. It tells staff members to ensure they have the students’ permission to use those pronouns when speaking to parents to avoid outing students.

This is an important step in protecting the students, said Stef Sloan, the second district commissioner for the Kansas City LGTBQ Commission. They said they know of cases in Independence where staff members were less careful.

“It has happened in the Independence School District that students have been outed to non-affirming parents,” they said. Sloan did not share specifics because of privacy concerns.

Both Independence teachers interviewed by The Beacon say they ask students’ permission before they request parental consent to use pronouns. The middle school teacher said referring to students by their preferred names and pronouns is “suicide prevention.”

A 2021 national survey on mental health for LGBTQ youth from the Trevor Project found more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth reported seriously considering suicide during the past year.

Those rates were lower for youth that had pronouns respected by those they lived with or were able to change their name and/or gender on legal documents, the report says. LGBTQ youth also reported lower suicide attempt rates if they “had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Legal concerns with pronoun policy

Henríquez of the ACLU said educators should be mindful that students “have the constitutional right to share or withhold” information about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Henríquez said schools “have an obligation to not discriminate on the basis of sex and a school not using a student’s proper pronouns violates that obligation.”

In a memorandum to the Independence district and Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Kansas City LGBTQ Commission argued the policy violates constitutional rights, Title IX and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Title IX refers to the section of a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education while FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ records.

“Teachers and staff are not obligated by state or federal law to reveal information about a student’s gender or sexual identity and/or receive parent permission to use a student’s expressed pronouns,” the letter reads.

DESE responded to the memorandum by advising those concerned about discrimination to file Title IX or Office of Civil Rights complaints.

“DESE takes issues of discrimination seriously,” wrote spokesperson Mallory McGowin in an email. “Our policy for handling such concerns is to have the individual/entity file a Title IX or OCR complaint so the proper channels and resources can be used to investigate further.”

What LGBTQ advocates are doing to address the pronoun policy

The Kansas City LGTBQ Commission encourages locals to take the lead in advocating for their communities, said Justice Horn, vice chair of the commission.

“We’re not a mouthpiece for the community,” he said. “We want to show up and center those that are disproportionately affected by this.”

But commission members took a more active role after hearing community members had a hard time getting the Independence district to answer emails or arrange meetings.

The district has not responded to the LGBTQ commission memorandum, said Sloan, who co-authored the letter. Multiple LGBTQ commission members requested to speak at the Independence school board’s Oct. 12 meeting, but the district declined the request because they were not district residents or employees.

Independence requires public commenters to submit a request with the topic they plan to cover at least a week in advance. The board can then decide if it is “appropriate” to include the topic on the agenda or as a public comment. One reason the board might reject a request is if the commenter has not tried to resolve the manner through other established channels.

The educators who spoke to The Beacon said they had discussed the policy with administrators, but without achieving any changes.

The middle school teacher encourages people to file complaints and added that the ACLU has pre-written letters about pronouns that people can send to the district.

Horn said the LGBTQ commission has also been encouraging internal organization and the expansion of GSAs within the district. GSA are student-run clubs for LGBTQ youth and allies.

“I think the best thing we can continue to do is to show up for folks that are doing this work on the ground as well as really urging your Independence neighbors to make this an issue,” Horn said, adding he doesn’t want people to “think twice about bringing their kids up in our education system.”

Pressure from conservative parents may influence policy

The Independence middle school teacher said the district is under pressure from conservative parents.

“They say, ‘There are a lot of districts in the news lately, and we don’t want to be one of those districts.’ Because we all know that conservative parents have started attacking schools,” the teacher said.

In September, the National School Boards Association sent a letterto President Joe Biden asking for federal help to protect board members across the country due to a “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation.” Much of it is related to coronavirus masking policies and teaching critical race theory.

At the Oct. 12 Independence school board meeting, parent Karie Beatty criticized the district for hosting LGBTQ student organizations and opposed using any platforms that ask for pronouns or gender identity.

“Do all of us think it is okay to teach our children that gender is nonbinary, by having these gender identification pronouns posted?” Beatty asked.

Independence does not record or livestream its school board meetings, a rarity among large Kansas City-area districts.

Both educators who spoke with The Beacon said a pronoun feature on the district’s course management site had already been disabled district-wide despite protests from some teachers and students.

Helen Hurley, the secretary of the Human Relations Commission in Independence, said she is concerned the school board will listen to angry parents like Beatty instead of to experts like the Trevor Project and Missouri LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO.

Hurley said she wanted students to feel “safe and supported” despite pushback.

“You heard in there, it was likened to a teacher being a pedophile,” Hurley said, following Beatty’s criticisms during the Oct. 12 meeting of a staff person sponsoring an LGBTQ student organization. “That’s baseless. It’s false. And to me that spreads through the community like wildfire and is harmful.”

With no adjustments to the policy in sight, the middle school teacher said they would continue using students’ preferred names and pronouns until the district threatens to take action against them.

Still, students can run into unexpected difficulties with school policy.

“I do have one student that is trans and was so excited, because he told me that in his talk with the counselor, he was going to be able to talk to his mom, and he knew his mom was going to be supportive, and then he could go by his name and his gender in school,” the teacher said.

But the student later realized his mom didn’t have authorization to give approval.

“It didn’t matter what his mom thought, because it was his dad who was on the legal school documents,” the teacher said. “That was really heartbreaking.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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