KC area teacher punished and denied job for using gender-neutral pronouns: Lawsuit

A former student teacher, who identifies as nonbinary, is suing the Fort Osage school district, claiming they were removed from assignments and denied employment for using gender-neutral pronouns.

Olivia Jackson, a University of Missouri–Columbia student who was assigned to teach vocal music in 2021, introduced themself at Fort Osage High School using she/her/they/them pronouns. Jackson also honored nonbinary students’ requests to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, following guidelines included in college curriculum, according to the federal lawsuit.

In response, Jackson claims an administrator told them that they were making students and parents uncomfortable, and that using gender-neutral pronouns was “too personal” and “too political.” The lawsuit says Jackson was removed from all student teaching assignments, denied employment with the district and stripped of a previously scheduled substitute teaching assignment.

“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,” Jackson’s attorney Douglas Schreiner said in an email to The Star.

“Olivia was, not surprisingly, devastated by what happened. Our goal in this lawsuit is to prevent this situation from happening again. Every teacher, regardless of their gender identify, should feel safe and supported by their school administrators.”

Officials in the eastern Jackson County district countered in a statement that the lawsuit “contains numerous inaccuracies and mistruths — both as to individuals mentioned and as to the Fort Osage R-1 School District. We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit and address the substance of those inaccuracies and mistruths in our pleadings.

“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.”

Schreiner said the allegations in the complaint are “based on documents, text messages, and/or firsthand accounts. We look forward to proving these facts at trial.”

Jackson started student teaching at Blue Hills Elementary School for the fall semester. The lawsuit claims that Jackson received positive feedback and was selected to fill a full-time music teacher position — an opportunity that was later revoked.

That spring, Jackson joined the high school, where they told staff, as well as their first class, that they were nonbinary and wanted to go by their preferred pronouns. Jackson’s mentoring teacher allegedly told them that such an introduction was “unnecessary” because “you can tell someone is a boy or girl by looking at them.”

The teacher then stopped Jackson from introducing themself to other classes, the lawsuit says. And the teacher continually refused to acknowledge Jackson’s nonbinary identity.

Jackson also respected high school students’ requests to use gender-neutral pronouns. The lawsuit says the university instructs student teachers to introduce themselves to their class by stating their preferred pronouns and honoring the pronouns requested by each student.

Jackson claimed to receive positive feedback for their work, including conducting during a spring concert. The school board approved Jackson’s employment as a substitute teacher.

Jackson interviewed for a full-time music teacher position at Blue Hills and received assurances that they would be hired.

In May, the high school mentoring teacher removed Jackson from all teaching duties and instead required them to organize the music library. Jackson was called into a meeting, where the activities director said that they were making students and parents uncomfortable by using gender-neutral pronouns and that Jackson was “hired to only teach students.”

Jackson allegedly was no longer allowed to instruct the spring concert. And on May 11, the school board rejected Jackson’s employment. Another person was hired for the job, so Jackson did not substitute teach as previously planned either.

The lawsuit argues Jackson suffered emotional distress and loss of income. Jackson is accusing the school district of violating their First Amendment rights and Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex- and gender-based discrimination.

Schreiner said previous cases of this kind have largely involved teachers who refused requests from students to use gender-neutral pronouns. Last year, the Geary County school district in central Kansas agreed to settle a lawsuit, paying a math teacher $95,000 in damages, after she refused to use a student’s preferred name and pronouns, citing religious reasons.

Over the past few years, several Kansas City area districts have seen controversy over policies regarding preferred pronouns for students and staff. And last year, the Grain Valley district, not far from Fort Osage, told high school teachers to remove cards and stickers indicating to students they are LGBTQ allies, sparking protests.

Missouri Republicans have proposed at least 27 anti-LGBTQ bills this session. They included a bill that would ban teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation at any grade level, no matter the class subject, going further than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that passed last year.