Education , Family & Community

Ray Carter | September 2, 2021

Edmond middle-school students asked for preferred pronouns

Ray Carter

As part of the start-of-school process in Edmond Public Schools, some middle-school students were asked to provide their preferred pronouns with options including “they/them.”

Theresa Epperly, a parent of four children in the Edmond district, said her seventh-grade daughter was among them.

“I see asking about a nickname,” Epperly said, “but this is ridiculous.”

Epperly said the question was posed to all students in a seventh-grade multimedia course through an online start-of-school questionnaire. In addition to asking for a student’s formal name and preferred name, the site also asked students what pronouns they preferred.

When she subsequently discussed the issue with school officials, Epperly said she was told there are no rules prohibiting teachers from asking that question. When Epperly noted the pronoun question had not previously been asked of her children, she said Edmond officials responded that “society has changed.”

“I said, ‘No, you all have changed and what you have allowed in this school,’” Epperly recalled.

She said school officials also suggested that her child could take another class.

“I said, ‘No. I just don’t want her answering stupid questions,” Epperly said.

Nationwide, schools have begun asking students to identify their preferred pronouns, a process that advocates say creates a welcoming environment for students who identify as transgender or as any of a multitude of recently declared genders other than male or female.

However, the practice remains controversial and is opposed by individuals on both sides of transgender issues.

In a recent column, John Stonestreet, president of The Colson Center, which describes its mission as advocating for a Christian worldview, criticized the practice of asking middle-school students to announce their pronouns. Stonestreet wrote opposition to the practice is based on reasons extending beyond “the questionable wisdom of asking hormone-riddled middle-schoolers during the most awkward times of their lives to talk about their bodies in front of their peers.”

“Encouraging students to view their identity as chosen, and their physical bodies as wrong isn’t normal,” Stonestreet wrote. “It isn’t true; and it’s harming our kids.”

Even some individuals who are supportive of transgender causes have raised concerns.

In a recent column for Inside Higher Ed, Rachel N. Levin, an associate professor of biology and neuroscience and dean of women at Pomona College, noted that students in her gender class journal in response to readings and class discussions. One student’s journal indicated the individual might be transgender. When Levin privately asked the student for preferred pronouns, she said the student’s “eyes filled with tears as they answered, ‘I don’t know.’ At about the same time, I asked someone at a conference what pronoun to use, and she burst into tears. She later explained that she had hoped that she ‘passed’ and that my question made her feel like she did not.”

Levin said those incidents led her to reconsider the wisdom of pressing even college-age students to publicly identify preferred pronouns.

“Those incidents taught me that questions about pronoun use can be painful to the very people to whom we are trying to signal support,” Levin wrote. “So why do many institutions and their faculty members persist in the wholesale practice of requesting pronouns on the first day of class, especially with young adults who are in the process of figuring out who they are? The result of this practice is that students whose gender presentation may not match their gender identity are forced to lie or to out themselves in a new and possibly unsafe environment, while those who are unsure of their gender identity are made to feel uncomfortable and forced to choose a pronoun.”

The pronoun issue has also prompted lawsuits.

Recently, Byron Cross, a teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, was placed on administrative leave after publicly voicing opposition to a proposed transgender policy that would require school staff to refer to students by their preferred pronouns.

Cross told the school board he was “speaking out of love for those who suffer with gender dysphoria” and noted a recent segment on the “60 Minutes” news program included interviews with 30 young people who underwent gender-transition measures they later regretted and are now trying to reverse.

“I love all of my students but I will never lie to them regardless of the consequences,” Cross said. “I’m a teacher, but I serve God first, and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it’s against my religion, it’s lying to a child, it’s abuse to a child, and it’s sinning against our God.”

Cross was subsequently suspended from his job for the comments, which school officials declared had a disruptive impact on the operations of the elementary school. The school cited complaints received from the parents of five students the day after Cross made his comments, and officials said parent complaints continued in the following days. The elementary school where Cross worked served 391 students while the district had an overall enrollment of more than 81,000.

During the resulting court case, five other school employees provided affidavits saying they also had concerns about the policy but refrained from saying so publicly due to fear of retaliation.

A lower court ruled in favor of Cross and ordered his reinstatement, and the Virginia Supreme Court upheld that decision, saying it “is settled law that the government may not take adverse employment actions against its employees in reprisal for their exercising their right to speak on matters of public concern.” The Virginia Supreme Court said the school district tried to “incorrectly minimize Cross’ interest in making his public comments,” noting that “in addition to expressing his religious views, Cross’ comments also addressed his belief that allowing children to transition genders can harm their physical or mental wellbeing. This is a matter of obvious and significant interest to Cross as a teacher and to the general public.”

The court noted that Cross “was opposing a policy that might burden his freedoms of expression and religion by requiring him to speak and interact with students in a way that affirms gender transition, a concept he rejects for secular and spiritual reasons. Under such circumstances, Cross’ interest in making his public comments was compelling.”

The court stated that the “only disruption the Defendants can point to is that a tiny minority of parents requested that Cross not interact with their children. However, the Defendants identify no case in which such a nominal actual or expected disturbance justified restricting speech as constitutionally valued as Cross’ nor have they attempted to explain why immediate suspension and restricted access to further Board meetings was the proportional or rational response to addressing the concerns of so few parents.”

Susan Parks-Schlepp, the director of communications for Edmond Public Schools, said the Edmond district does not require students to identify their preferred pronouns, but that some teachers unilaterally took that action.

“At the start of the year, in an effort to get to know their students better, a few middle school teachers gave writing prompts to their students that included several questions,” Parks-Schlepp said. “Answers to the prompts were known only to the teachers. Among the prompt questions was one seeking the students’ preferred pronoun. There has since been discussion as to the age and developmental appropriateness of the question when asked of middle schoolers.”

Epperly questions why any Edmond school official waded into the pronoun debate at all.

“It was just unnecessary,” Epperly said. “You know her name. What else do you need?”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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