A Kansas school district has agreed to pay $95,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former teacher who refused to use a student’s preferred name and pronouns, according to her lawyers.
Pamela Ricard, a former math teacher at Fort Riley Middle School, sued the district in March, alleging she was reprimanded and suspended for three days in April 2021 for addressing a student by their "legal and enrolled last name” instead of their preferred one.
Attorneys for Ricard called the settlement with Geary County Schools “a victory for free speech at public schools.”
“No school district should ever force teachers to willfully deceive parents or engage in any speech that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” Tyson Langhofer, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement.
“We’re pleased to settle this case favorably on behalf of Pam, and we hope that it will encourage school districts across the country to support the constitutionally protected freedom of teachers to teach and communicate honestly with both children and parents.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom describes itself as a non-profit committed to “protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the organization as a “hate group” for its anti-LGBTQ ideology.
Geary County Schools confirmed that a settlement had been reached but otherwise had no comment.
According to the lawsuit, a guidance counselor told Ricard that a student preferred a different first name than their registered one and a classmate said the student used “he/him” pronouns. The lawsuit said Ricard decided to use “Miss” and the student’s last name in order “to be respectful to the student without compromising” Ricard's religious beliefs.
The lawsuit alleged the district did not have a formal policy regarding students’ preferred names and use of pronouns when Ricard was suspended. Instead, it alleged she was disciplined under “generic school district policies” regarding bullying by staff.
A week after Ricard returned from her suspension, staff received instructions mandating that teachers use students' preferred names and pronouns or face discriminatory action, according to the suit. It said the school district rejected her request for a religious accommodation to the policy.
In October 2021, teachers and staff were directed to not inform parents of a student’s pronouns or preferred name unless the students requested for them to do so.
As part of the settlement, Ricard’s attorneys said the school district agreed to issue a statement that she was “in good standing without any disciplinary actions against her at the time of her retirement in May.”
Following the settlement, the case was dismissed on Wednesday.
Jodi Fortino is the education reporter for KCUR. This story was made available to KPR through the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.