A civil rights complaint regarding teachers’ ability to ask students their preferred pronouns took center stage at the La Center School Board meeting on Tuesday.
The complaint, which was filed by a group of staff, students and community members on Nov. 22, came after district Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz requested in a Nov. 10 staff email that teachers not ask students for their pronouns, only their preferred name.
If students provided their preferred pronouns unprompted, Rosenkranz said, teachers must always acknowledge and adhere to those preferences, the email also states.
Teachers who filed the complaint said they had asked students about preferred pronouns as an optional question on a digital getting-to-know-you survey at the beginning of the year.
The Nov. 22 complaint labeled Rosenkranz’s directive as discriminatory, citing state laws and district policies that are intended to protect LGBTQ+ students.
“The new directive from Mr. Rosenkranz prohibits teachers from reaching out to a protected class of students: LGBTQ and gender expansive individuals,” the complaint reads. “It is direct discrimination in that it is an apparently neutral rule that affects the LGBTQ, and only the LGBTQ, community. The district’s directive limits teachers’ abilities to create an LGBTQ friendly learning environment and creates a systemic barrier toward full inclusivity of LGBTQ students.”
In response, the district said it didn’t find the directive to be discriminatory but moved to open an investigation into the matter. The following investigation, done by Spokane Valley-based RLR Consulting and finished in December, concluded that Rosenkranz’s directive wasn’t a violation of students’ civil rights.
“It is quite clear in law(s) RCW 28A.640, RCW 28A 642, and WAC 392-190 and Policies 3210 and 3211 that LGBTQ students have the right to be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns,” the investigation’s executive summary reads. “While Policy 3211 admirably requires an ‘inclusive approach toward transgender and gender expansive students, it does not specifically outline how that is to be achieved nor does it require or prohibit teachers from canvassing students about their pronoun preference. The investigator believes that the civil rights of LGBTQ students, or teachers, are not being violated by the recent directive.”
Tuesday’s meeting brought the contents of the complaint and subsequent investigation for discussion before the school board, featuring thoughts from the writers of the initial complaint and other community members. Attendees said the majority of speakers came in support of the complainants.
“We’ve been slowly talking about how to best support LGBTQ students in education; what’s been recommended to teachers is that we make sure for students to have the opportunity to share their pronouns,” said Minna Thayer, a math teacher at La Center High School who was the lead name on the complaint. “So when we ask students to tell about themselves, not just their name and nickname and their pronouns. That’s what we had heard from inclusive school trainings, from counselors, from all sorts of programs.”
Thayer, who also serves as the adviser of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, said she and others were immediately concerned with the policy and felt that preventing teachers from asking the question of student pronouns serves as a barrier to inclusivity.
“The (GSA club) students are worried. They feel it’s going to make life more difficult for them,” Thayer said. “They feel generally supported in the club, but they worry about students who don’t have that same support group and may not yet be comfortable having these conversations (publicly).”
Erin Smelser, a special education paraeducator in the district who also signed the complaint, described the approach via optional survey to be the safest and easiest option for students who might not be ready to open the conversation in person.
“Really the only way the teachers can know the pronouns that students prefer is for that student to tell them on their own, and that puts a great burden on an already marginalized group,” Smelser said. “What we want is a safer approach. If anyone’s concerned about an agenda — I think the only agenda here would be one’s right to personhood.”
Rosenkranz acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that the position he’s found himself in is a difficult one.
“Currently, with how hot-button the issue is, any decision I make is going to fire up one side or the other,” he said. “What I have to do is walk down the middle of the road and ask students their name. Now, if students want to go by a different name or pronouns, then we’ll absolutely honor that.”
Though he feels strongly that the directive wasn’t an act of discrimination, Rosenkranz said he found comments from those criticizing his choice to have led to a productive and important discussion.
“I think people listened. There’s always something that I’m going to take away from a board meeting that causes me to reflect my practice,” he said. “It’s fairly new, people trying to identify their pronouns, sometimes done in a way to support the LGBTQ community. I have no problems with that, we support all our kids.
“But these are discussions that belong with families, we need to focus on reading, writing, math, science, those things.”
The La Center School Board has 30 days to review the complaint and relevant documents before issuing a ruling on whether Rosenkranz’s directive was an act that violated district policy.