Metro Weekly

School District Bars Staff from Including Pronouns in Email Signatures

District also bars teachers from displaying Pride flags and wearing pro-LGBTQ symbols, claiming such actions are "political" in nature.

Original image by Sharon McCutcheon, via Unsplash.

When school resumes this September in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, teachers in the Kettle Moraine School District will be barred from showing any signs of support or tolerance on LGBTQ issues.

Specifically, teachers will be prohibited from placing their pronouns in their email signatures, out of concern that the inclusion of pronouns may offend people who are skeptical of gender identity. The Kettle Moraine School Board has also informed teachers that they may not display Pride flags, wear LGBTQ-supportive pins or paraphernalia, or even wear rainbow-colored clothing.

Superintendent Stephen Plum, citing an existing policy restricting teachers from pushing political and religious messaging, outlined a “professional expectation” that teachers refrain from using pronouns in their email signatures.

Pronouns may be viewed by some as “political,” because even awareness of the existence of gender-nonconforming pronouns runs counter to some people’s religious views or beliefs that there are only two genders and that gender is fixed at birth. Parents may also become uncomfortable or upset if they believe their children’s teachers are promoting ideas that they find objectionable, or with which they disagree.

We’re in a world where politics are highlighted,” Plum said. “It just puts people in uncomfortable positions.”

As such, teachers who mention nontraditional pronoun use or are believed to be supporting — either explicitly or implicitly — LGBTQ rights may be viewed with suspicion by some parents, who are concerned about adults pushing “political” agendas on their potentially impressionable children.

Plum’s directive also applies to the physical state of classrooms, where symbols of LGBTQ supportiveness, such as a “safe space” sticker, pronoun pins, or wearing rainbow colors — even if the such clothing is not actually intended to be a symbol of LGBTQ support — are prohibited.

“The expectation is that teachers and administration will not have political flags or religious messaging in their classroom or on their person. This expectation includes Pride flags,” Plum told local ABC affiliate WISN.

Other examples of politically-motivated expression that are banned under the policy include flags, banners, or other merchandise bearing the messages “Black Lives Matter,” “Back the Badge,” or “Make America Great Again.”

The school board posted video of the July 26 meeting, during which it adopted the revised policy, to its Facebook page, garnering hundreds of concerned comments in the weeks since.

Though the policy limiting political expression does not extend to students, who are protected by the First Amendment, the school district has been criticized for not following its motto: “Learning Without Boundaries,” with some community members saying insulating students — especially older students at the high school level — from political expression or divergent opinions does them a disservice.

School Board Member Jim Romanowski said he opposed the policy change.

“With regard to political expression,” he said, “I believe it is a huge mistake to think that we need to insulate our high school students from political expressions. Our students are fully capable of exercising their critical thinking skills to sort through the noise of partisan politics and make up their own informed choices.”

Parent Christi Sturrock said she’d prefer an age-specific approach to expressions of political speech.

“They’re going to be exposed to all sorts of aspects of the world,” she said of students, “but I do think at especially elementary school age we should be protecting our children a little bit so that parents can take the lead on educating politically for their own children.”

Two students in the district, Bethany Provan and Brit Farrar, have started a petition calling for the policy to be overturned, which has garnered a few thousand signatures. 

“A Pride flag is not a political thing, loving someone is not political,” the petition states. “Think of all the students/kids who are scared to go home because they don’t have the support of their families, but when they walk into to school and their teacher has a pride flag hanging on the wall, they finally feel safe and supported. Taking away this flag may seem simple to you, but it is NOT for the students.”

Noting that they have experienced “hateful” and “homophobic” comments from their fellow students at school, Provan and Farrar note that every person has a personal pronoun — even if it aligns with their assigned sex at birth — and criticize the district for infringing on teachers’ free speech rights.

“[L]ike it or not everyone has a pronoun,” the petition states. “She/her [and] he/him are pronouns. You use them in everyday life. So is it a crime for our teachers to say what they would like to be referred by?”

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