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A Kansas City student teacher's lawsuit says their gender-neutral pronouns deemed 'too personal'

A partial photo of the exterior of a brick building reads "Fort Osage High School." Layered on top of that are pages of documents from a lawsuit. A highlighted section of one of the documents reads: "During that meeting, Mr. Schartz advised Mx. Jackson that they were making parent and students "uncomfortable" with their use of gender-neutral pronouns when referencing themself and the other students who had requested this designation."
Photo illustration by Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

A nonbinary student teacher was told by an employee of the Fort Osage District that using gender-neutral pronouns was “too personal” and “too political.” Now, Olivia Jackson alleges that the school district discriminated by refusing to hire them because of their gender identity.

A nonbinary student teacher alleges the Fort Osage School District refused to hire them for a position because of their gender identity in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The lawsuit states that Olivia Jackson, a student teacher from the University of Missouri-Columbia, introduced themselves using their preferred pronouns at Fort Osage High School and used gender-neutral pronouns for nonbinary students.

The lawsuit alleges the Fort Osage School District then unlawfully discriminated against Jackson and violated their First Amendment rights by removing them from student teaching, rejecting them from employment and canceling a substitute teaching assignment.

Jackson’s attorney, Doug Schreiner, said lawsuits typically involve teachers who refuse to use gender neutral pronouns for students who have requested them to do so.

“This case presents the opposite situation. Olivia, a student teacher, was punished for stating their own preferred pronouns and honoring the requests of several students to use gender-neutral pronouns,” said Schreiner. “We believe the School District’s actions silenced Olivia’s right to freely express their gender identity, those of their students, and perhaps most importantly, are not conducive to a safe and positive learning environment.”

A spokesperson for the school district said in an emailed statement that the district had just learned of the complaint and started the process of reviewing it. They also said the district “is an equal opportunity employer and makes decisions about the hiring of teachers based on their ability to serve our students, regardless of their gender or gender identity.”

For the first few months of 2021, Jackson was assigned to Blue Hills Elementary School, where they said they had a positive student teaching experience under their mentor teacher Nathan Gearke. For the second half of the semester, they were assigned to student teach vocal music at Fort Osage High School.

The lawsuit alleges that the district’s discriminatory behavior began after Jackson introduced themselves and their preferred pronouns at the high school and followed their college curriculum by using gender neutral pronouns for students that also identified as nonbinary.

The lawsuit states that Jackson’s mentoring teacher, Julie Ammons, told Jackson that the way they introduced themselves was “unnecessary” because “you can tell someone is a boy or girl by looking at them.”

The lawsuit alleges Jackson was not allowed to introduce themselves to a class again and Ammons refused to acknowledge their identity as non-binary for the remainder of their time student teaching at Fort Osage High School. In April, Gearke told Jackson he was leaving his teaching position at Blue Hills Elementary School and believed they should apply for the job.

The lawsuit alleges that after an interview for the position, principal Monica Shane texted and expressed to Jackson, “I want to hire you!” The lawsuit says Gearke also requested that Jackson substitute teach at Blue Hills Elementary School during the last two weeks of class in his absence.

According to the lawsuit, Ammons spoke with Jackson’s university advisor on May 4. The lawsuit alleges that Ammons said people at the school were uncomfortable with Jackson’s use of gender-neutral pronouns to describe themselves and non-binary students, but praised their teaching ability.

Later that day, the lawsuit alleges Ammons sent an email asking Jackson to design the program for the school's upcoming scholarship concert and to organize her music library during class. The lawsuit says Ammons also noted that she would teach and direct all classes, effectively removing Jackson from teaching duties.

On May 7, Jackson was called into a meeting with Ammons and Ryan Schartz, the school’s activities director. During the meeting, the lawsuit alleges Schartz said Jackson was making parents and students “uncomfortable” by using gender-neutral pronouns and using those pronouns was “too personal,” “too political,” and Jackson was “hired to only teach students.”

Following that meeting, the lawsuit alleges Jackson was not allowed to teach students or conduct the scholarship concert — their college capstone project — on May 11.

Jackson received a call from Shane on May 12 to notify them that the Fort Osage School Board rejected their employment for the music teacher position at Blue Hill Elementary School based on a report Schartz provided. Shane told Jackson they were not allowed to conduct the concert because of the issues Schartz raised at the May 7 meeting.

The lawsuit also alleges that Shane and Ammons had a conversation on May 17 about Jackson in which Ammons said Jackson would be a good teacher but she was concerned about Jackson’s mental health — and that Shane would need to be “in the classroom often to keep an eye on how students are addressed.”

Shane told Jackson on the same day that she supported them for the teaching position but the school board would continue to reject their employment. The lawsuit alleges that the district also canceled Jackson’s substitute teaching assignment at Blue Hills Elementary School. The lawsuit says Jackson will seek damages for the emotional distress they suffered because of the district’s discrimination. Because Jackson believed they had secured a teaching position at Blue Hills Elementary, the lawsuit alleges that they stopped their job search and missed out on “the opportunity to apply for the most desirable and well-paid jobs available.”

The lawsuit comes as LGBTQ teachers in Missouri are concerned about how they can show up in the classroom because of a bill in the state legislaturethat would ban the discussion of gender or sexual orientation. The bill is broader than the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed last year in Florida — it covers grades K-12 and only allows discussion of gender or sexual orientation by a licensed mental health provider and with parental permission.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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