Virginia school district leaders ask court to uphold teacher firing in transgender student case
School board members from five Virginia localities and Richmond’s schools superintendent have signed onto an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Virginia opposing a former teacher’s claim that he was unlawfully fired for violating his district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
The brief, which was submitted by LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Virginia and more than 35 signatories, asks the Supreme Court of Virginia to uphold the King William Circuit Court’s dismissal of former teacher Peter Vlaming’s lawsuit against the West Point School Board.
School board members who joined the brief include those from Arlington, Fairfax and Stafford counties, and the cities of Charlottesville and Falls Church.
“Without clear protections, such as the commonwealth’s model policies for the treatment of transgender students in Virginia’s public schools and West Point’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, transgender children risk mental, emotional, physical, and sexual harm when they attend school,” the brief states. “Without these protections, transgender students suffer isolation and stigma when they are differentiated from their peers.”
Vlaming, a former high school French teacher with West Point, refused to use male pronouns to refer to a student who had recently undergone a gender transition and legal name change, according to a January 2019 letter from the school board. The school board then fired him on the grounds that he had violated the division’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
Some West Point students staged a protest against the board’s decision.
Vlaming subsequently sued the West Point School Board for $1 million.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization focused on protecting religious freedoms, which is representing Vlaming, said Vlaming consistently accommodated the student by using the student’s preferred name instead of his given name.
“Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say,” said ADF Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel in a statement in March.
“As a teacher, Peter was passionate about the subject he taught, he was well-liked by his students, and he did his best to accommodate their needs and requests,” he said. “But Peter could not in good conscience speak messages that he does not believe to be true.”
In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring local school divisions to adopt model policies extending rights to transgender students. Despite the option for school divisions to adopt their own version of the state model, many school divisions still haven’t complied with the directive.
Last July, Equality Virginia and law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll filed a separate brief in support of Virginia’s model policies to make schools safer and more inclusive for transgender students.
The two said in a joint statement on Wednesday that the West Point School Board must treat its transgender students equally, including by ensuring that staff address transgender students with the names and pronouns that reflect their gender identity.
The groups pointed to the negative and harmful experiences of transgender and non-binary students and their families in Virginia schools as reasons for anti-discrimination policies and practices, such as using a student’s correct pronouns.
“Transgender and non-binary students, when compared to their cisgender peers, face physical abuse, bullying, and extreme emotional harm at higher rates, which impact their well-being and education,” said Narissa S. Rahaman, executive director at Equality Virginia.
The most recent National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, a group formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that advocates for LGBTQ+ students, found that most LGBTQ+ secondary school students said they felt unsafe in school in 2019, largely because of their sexual orientation and how they expressed their gender.
The survey also found that many LGBTQ+ students in Virginia did not have access to resources, such as an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum, and were not protected by supportive and inclusive school policies.
“The harm of differentiating transgender students from their peers and failing to affirm their identities is well-established in the courts,” said S. Douglas Bunch, an attorney with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, in a statement.
“Sadly, this effect is magnified when the hostile actor is a teacher,” he said. “School policies, such as one of using pronouns that reflect a transgender student’s identity, are there to mitigate these harms and allow all students to thrive in school.”
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