In a fairly open-and-shut case, a Virginia school district has terminated a teacher who refused to respect a transgender student’s identity in accordance with the school’s policies.
After a four-hour public hearing Thursday, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate French teacher Peter Vlaming. Vlaming had previously been placed on administrative leave after refusing to use the proper pronouns for a transgender student, even after administrators repeatedly instructed him to do so.
Following the vote to terminate, Superintendent Laura Abel released a statement explaining that Vlaming’s actions were clearly in violation of the school’s policies:
The School Board has policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. 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. As superintendent, it is my responsibility to enforce board policy, and due to Mr. Vlaming’s non-compliance I therefore recommended termination.
Vlaming, however, argued that “a specific worldview is being imposed upon me.” He had agreed to use the student’s new name, but tried to avoid using any pronouns to address him directly, which made him feel singled out. The teacher continued used the incorrect female pronouns to refer to him to others, and still also used those incorrect pronouns in his presence.
Vlaming believed his approach constituted “mutual tolerance,” but administrators disagreed. Siding with the student, West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman instructed Vlaming to comply with the student’s wishes about being addressed by male pronouns. “I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” Hochman said.
Vlaming called that “coercion.” “I am being punished for what I haven’t said,” he claimed. “I am being punished for not speaking a government message.”
Vlaming’s attorney, Shawn Voyles — an adjunct professor at Pat Robertson’s Regent University — likewise claimed that Vlaming should be “free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience.” He insisted that the school’s gender identity policy was too vague and could not be enforced.
During Thursday’s hearing, Voyles identified the student by name in violation of the privacy agreement set forth beforehand. ThinkProgress reached out to Voyles for comment about this error, and he explained that it was inadvertent and that he had made an effort to redact the student’s name from his exhibits. “Unfortunately, when I was questioning one of the witnesses for the school yesterday, I was reading from the exhibit book prepared by the school, which contained letters written by the school administration,” he said. “Those exhibits were not redacted; the student’s name was still visible.”
“I immediately apologized for my slip-up when I read from an administrator’s letter, and the hearing proceeded,” Voyles assured, adding, “We continue to fully respect the student.”
Vlaming said he has not yet decided whether he plans to take legal action to challenge the termination. “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.”
Conservative groups are very upset by the termination. The Family Foundation, an anti-LGBTQ organization in Virginia, responded by framing nondiscrimination policies as “being used to punish anyone who does not agree with the ideology of the day and to coerce good people to speak a message they fundamentally disagree with at the threat of their livelihood.”
The Family Research Council, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, went so far as to claim that affirming transgender kids constitutes “child abuse” — relying on junk science from another anti-LGBTQ hate group. “What’s next? Sending teachers away to government camps like China to have them ‘reprogrammed’?” the group asked.
The situation closely mirrors a case recently brought by a professor at Shawnee State University. Like Vlaming, philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether refused to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns. He was disciplined with a letter in his personnel file, and has since sued the university, claiming that the discipline infringed upon his freedoms of speech and religion.
Earlier this year, Indiana orchestra teacher John Kluge also resigned rather than comply with his school district’s policy of respecting transgender students. He tried to reverse that resignation, but the school did not accept it. Kluge has since filed a tort claim against the district, demanding he be reinstated and allowed to call students only by their last names.
As transgender students fight — with mixed results — for respect across the country — expectations of teachers increasingly have entered the limelight. A recent study found that 87 percent of LGBTQ students experienced some kind of direct harassment or assault related to their identity, and that anti-trans remarks from staff have actually increased since 2013. Conversely, it found that LGBTQ students feel safer when staff are supportive and comprehensive nondiscrimination policies are in place.