Virginia teacher fired over refusal to change pronouns for transgender student

What obligations do teachers have in remembering which pronouns go with which students? And does pronoun use cross religious doctrines? One Virginia high-school teacher finds himself out of a job for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns, after the school rejected a compromise in which the teacher offered not to use any pronouns at all:

News outlets report that the West Point School Board voted unanimously Thursday to dismiss Peter Vlaming after a four-hour hearing that drew an overflow crowd. The school system said in a statement that Vlaming was fired for insubordination. …

Witnesses described a “slip-up” when the student was about to run into a wall and Vlaming told others to stop “her.” When discussing the incident with administrators, Vlaming made it clear he would not use male pronouns, a stance that led to his suspension referral for disciplinary action.

“I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” said West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman, who testified that he told Vlaming to use male pronouns in accordance with the student’s wishes.

Really? No worse way to treat a child than to, um, use the English language pronouns in accordance with biological sex as has been the case for centuries? When the student was about to run into a wall while wearing virtual reality goggles? If that’s the worst horror that West Point High has ever seen visited upon a student, that’s a moment for gratitude. Perhaps Hochman really has never had to deal with teachers who molest students, children who get physically abused by bullies, predatory drug dealers, and the like. However, most other schools have seen far worse visited on students than an errant pronoun and the high dudgeon that comes along with it, and such a statement is at least as offensive as Hochman thinks Vlaming’s comments were.

Speaking of high dudgeon and hysteria, Vlaming argues that his religion prevents him from, um, improper pronoun use:

Vlaming told superiors that his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for the student. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.

Vlaming’s attorney, Shawn Voyles, says his client offered to use the student’s name and to avoid feminine pronouns, but Voyles says the school was unwilling to accept the compromise. …

“One of those rights that is not curtailed is to be free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience,” Voyles said.

Don’t expect that argument to go very far. While the First Amendment covers individual speech on its own, speech in terms of the duties when working for an employer get far narrower protections. The school district can set such policies as the proper way to address students; a legal fight would have to address a clear state interest in dealing with the rise of transgender-identifying students in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the teaching process. The district didn’t set its policies arbitrarily without any appreciable interest (although their policies apparently didn’t include instruction for pronoun use).

That’s not to say that Vlaming might not have an argument to make under a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Virginia does have its own RFRA code, which includes a caveat about not preventing “any governmental institution or facility from maintaining health, safety, security or discipline.” But even with that, Vlaming would have to prove that his sincerely held religious beliefs require not just that Vlaming not believe in transgendering, but that he’s putting his beliefs at risk merely by using the words “he” and “him” in relation to a biologically female student. If he could clear that bar, then he might have a case, when added to the fact that the school rejected a common-sense compromise of not using any pronouns at all, which would have satisfied the state’s interest in discipline and student “health.” But that seems very doubtful, unless Vlaming’s church has pronoun use as a specific tenet of faith.

In this case, both sides are acting unreasonably, but the school far more so. This may sound familiar to readers, because an almost identical case took place last month in Ohio. That dispute took place at a state university, which also rejected the reasonable compromise of simply dropping the use of all pronouns. In both cases, it looks like activists prized confrontation and humiliation over accommodation and tolerance.

Rod Dreher is appalled:

The teacher blurted out a pronoun referring to the child’s actual biological gender as he was trying to prevent her from walking into a wall while wearing virtual reality goggles! If that scene were in a movie, you would think the symbolism was too hokey. But this is real life. …

What kind of Christmas will these four children have, with their father unemployed because of this kid, her parents, and the school board? Well done, transgender movement. You’ve put a father of four out of work at Christmastime because he wouldn’t lie to protect your feelings.

Perhaps a better question to ask is when the use of pronouns became more important than actually getting an education, and when feelings trumped all other considerations. That question can be asked in both cases without judging whether it was actually offensive in the first place; to some it obviously is, to others not, but either way both incidents show a level of hype that makes hash out of all attempts at common-sense priorities. When a mistaken pronoun becomes the worst thing that ever happened to anyone, so much so that it requires ruining a public servant’s life rather than dealing with our differences rationally, everything in that environment has gone off the rails.

By the way … where’s the teacher’s union in all this nonsense?

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Jazz Shaw 7:31 PM on October 02, 2022