By: Graham Moomaw – richmond.com – December 6, 2018
A Virginia high school teacher was fired Thursday for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, a case believed to be the first of its kind in the state.
After a four-hour hearing, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School who resisted administrators’ orders to use male pronouns to refer to a ninth-grade student who had undergone a gender transition. The board met in closed session for nearly an hour before the vote.
Like a similar transgender rights case in nearby Gloucester County that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Vlaming’s situation could present a novel legal case as public bodies continue to grapple with how to reconcile anti-discrimination policies with the rights of religious employees.
The high school in West Point, a town in King William County about an hour east of Richmond, has about 265 students.
Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female.
The student’s family informed the school system of the transition over the summer. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.
Vlaming agreed to use the student’s new, male name. But he tried to avoid using any pronouns — he or him, and she or her — when referring to the student. The student said that made him feel uncomfortable and singled out.
Administrators sided with the boy, telling Vlaming he could not treat his transgender pupil differently than he treats others.
“That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that,” said West Point schools Superintendent Laura Abel. “They felt disrespected.”
School administrators recommended that Vlaming be fired, saying he had violated the school system’s nondiscrimination and harassment policies.
“Does this board expect its employees to follow its policies or not?” said attorney Stacy Haney, who was representing the school district.
The nondiscrimination policies were updated a year ago to include protections for gender identity, but Vlaming’s lawyer, Shawn Voyles, said there was no specific guidance on the use of gender pronouns.
Even as a public employee, Voyles said, Vlaming has constitutional rights of his own.
“One of those rights that is not curtailed is to be free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience,” Voyles said.
Speaking in his own defense, Vlaming said he loves and respects all his students and had tried to reach a solution based on “mutual tolerance.” That effort was rejected, he said, putting him at risk of losing his job for having views held by “most of the world for most of human history.”
“That is not tolerance,” Vlaming said. “That is coercion.”
The hearing drew an overflow crowd, made up largely of parents and students supporting a man they described as a model teacher who does extra duty as a soccer coach and bus driver. A stack of signs that read “Justice for Mr. Vlaming” sat by the door, but school officials said no signs would be allowed in the small meeting room that could fit only a fraction of the crowd.
“If there’s no policy in place, how can they just let him go?” said Jennifer Haynes, a 52-year-old West Point High parent.
The proceeding also drew the attention of Equality Virginia, an LGBTQ-rights group that said the situation reveals the need for “statewide guidance” that will protect all students from discrimination at school.
It’s not clear if Vlaming’s firing will lead to a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Vlaming said he was interested in pursuing a legal appeal, but he wanted to consult with his attorney before announcing further steps.
“I have to research how we would do that, what that would entail,” Vlaming said. “I do think it’s a serious question of First Amendment rights.”
But the dispute has all the makings of a legal fight, presenting a novel mix of questions about LGBTQ rights, religious freedom and the limits of free speech for public employees.
In Gloucester, a dispute between the School Board and transgender student Gavin Grimm over bathroom access rose all the way to the Supreme Court. That case lost momentum when Grimm graduated from high school, but had potential to set a nationwide precedent on a major transgender rights issue.
Vlaming’s case could work in the opposite direction, offering enterprising attorneys a chance to challenge a nondiscrimination policy Vlaming’s lawyer called “unconstitutionally vague.”
No one suggested that Vlaming deliberately used female pronouns to refer to the student in the student’s presence, but he did use female pronouns to refer to the student in conversations with others. Witnesses described one pronoun “slip-up” during a class activity on Halloween when the student was using a virtual reality headset. The student was about to run into a wall, and Vlaming told others to stop “her.”
Vlaming discussed the incident with administrators, but made it clear he would not use male pronouns, a stance that led to him being suspended and referred for disciplinary action.
“I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” said West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman, who testified that he told Vlaming to use male pronouns in accordance with the student’s wishes.
The student, a ninth-grader, and his family were not involved in Thursday’s hearing. Both sides agreed to not use the boy’s name.
To highlight the pitfalls of strict rules against “misgendering,” Vlaming and his lawyer pointed out that Hochman used the wrong pronoun for the student during his testimony.
As Hochman described his conversation with Vlaming after the incident on Halloween, Hochman said he told Vlaming: “You need to say sorry for that. And refer to her by the male pronoun.”
The school system released a brief statement after the vote.
“As detailed during the course of the public hearing, Mr. Vlaming was recommended for termination due to his insubordination and repeated refusal to comply with directives made to him by multiple WPPS administrators,” said Abel, the superintendent.
The statement said the school system would not be commenting further due to “the potential for future litigation.”
Though they perhaps weren’t as vocal as Vlaming’s defenders, the transgender student had supporters of his own.
“No matter what sense of self or identity a child may have, public schools must remain a bastion of secular education, where children can learn without fear of retribution for who they are, where they worship, who they love, or how they present themselves,” Mera Babineaux, a West Point resident and founder of the Virginia Anti-Bullying and Discrimination Action Network, wrote in a letter to the board.
Vlaming, who is pursuing a master’s degree in school administration at the College of William & Mary, asked the School Board to consider what he called the “absurdity” of punishing a teacher for discrimination on the basis of pronoun usage alone, with no accusation of overtly malicious behavior.
“I am being punished for what I haven’t said,” Vlaming said.
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