Superintendent’s pronoun directive under review by members of La Center School Board

Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz
Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz

Independent review determined no La Center students had their Civil Rights violated by the directive of Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz

A review is underway of the findings of an outside investigation regarding a Civil Rights complaint filed in the La Center School District. The complaint was filed on Nov. 22 by a La Center teacher following instructions by Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz as to how the district’s teachers should address student pronouns.

In December, Dr. Gene Sementi of RLR Consulting in Spokane, provided the district his final report on the district’s preferred pronoun usage. In his report, Sementi found that no La Center students had their Civil Rights violated by the directive Rosenkranz shared with staff members in an email distributed on Oct. 28.

Despite that determination, the complaint was then forwarded to the La Center School Board and was addressed during a special meeting Tuesday (Jan. 10), during which board members heard passionate testimony from teachers, students and citizens. The board will take 30 days to review the matter, which will also then be forwarded to the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for review.

“The La Center School District’s priority is, and always will be, to create a learning environment that supports all students,’’ Rosenkranz said in a statement provided to Clark County Today. “As stated in an email to the staff, pronouns are a very complex issue. Students are more than welcome to share their pronouns with teachers if they choose, and we will honor that request. 

“When approached with an allegation of discrimination related to asking students about their pronouns, the La Center School District proactively initiated an independent investigation to be sure we were following applicable state laws and district policy,’’ Rosenkranz added. “The results of the investigation found no civil rights violations and no discrimination. We will continue to focus on providing a rich learning environment for all our students.”

The Oct. 28 email

Rosenkranz told Clark County Today that the issue was born out of a discussion about how teachers would engage students in introductions at the beginning of the school year and the beginning of each semester. 

“The reason this came about is I had some parents raise some concerns that their kids were being pressured for pronouns,’’ Rosenkranz said. “What I found was that families may or may not have been ready for the pronoun conversation. It caught them off guard.’’

In his Oct. 28 email to staff, Rosenkranz shared the following instructions on the subject of pronouns:

“The practice of identifying ourselves through a name and pronoun is not new, however, it seems to have become significantly more complex. The well-intentioned ‘Get to Know You’ sheet when asking pronouns changes the focus of our practice from learning in our content areas to something else entirely. The challenge as I see it has to do with the question. By asking for pronouns, you may be inclusive to a small portion of our student population, however, are excluding another population entirely. A simple fix may provide the opportunity for a student to state name changes and/or pronouns by simply asking a different question. We need to provide an inclusive environment for all our students, including those who think differently about the pronoun issue. 

“To ensure a more inclusive environment for all our learners, we need only to ask the student’s name if it is different from what is listed in skyward. This can maintain neutrality in the conversation and “support all of our students. Asking for pronouns in a public setting can make some feel included and others feel excluded. By just asking a student’s name, verbally or in writing, we give every student an opportunity to identify themselves on how they would like to be referred. Additionally, this practice would allow students to be included, in PK-12. You can use students’ preferred pronouns and names if they request. If a student would like to be called something different, they need to let you know. 

“What I am really struggling with is the idea that we are keeping information from parents. The assumption is that notifying parents will have a negative impact on the child and puts you and the district in an unenviable position to know more about the child than their parents, or worse assume the parents will react negatively to the information. 

“I firmly believe these conversations belong to the family. We teach vocabulary in health class and give opportunities for families to discuss them as that topic comes up at home. I believe the pronoun conversation, well-intentioned, caught parents off guard and reinforced the feeling that schools are teaching what to think, not how to think.” 

According to Sementi’s final report, La Center High School teacher Minna Thayer, who also serves as the advisor to the Gender Sexuality Alliance, and a number of other teachers interpreted the guidance from Rosenkranz as prohibiting them from asking a blanket question to each of their classes requesting each student to declare their preferred pronouns on a seating chart, name tag, half sheet of paper, note card, Google survey, etc. When the complainant asked for a clarification of the guidance to not poll a classroom of students regarding preferred pronouns, Rosenkranz replied that; “Yes this is what I’m asking you not to do moving forward. If they have different pronouns and want them used in class they can tell you.” This clarification was provided to all staff on Nov. 10 in an electronic newsletter.

Complaint filed

The Formal Civil Rights Complaint was submitted by Thayer to La Center High School Principal Lauri Landerholm on Nov. 22. The complaint references RCW 28A.640, RCW 28A 642, and WAC 392-190 that the district is responsible to “protect students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression or identity from discrimination or harassment.” 

The complaint also cites District Policy 3210 that states “The board believes in fostering an educational environment that is safe and free of discrimination for all students, regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or sex. To that end, the board recognizes the importance of an inclusive approach toward transgender and gender expansive students with regard to student records, confidential health and education information, communication and use of names and pronouns, restroom and locker room accessibility, sports and physical education, dress codes and other school activities in order to provide these students with an equal opportunity for learning and achievement.” 

The complaint stated that the directive for teachers not to solicit pronoun preference of every student “is direct discrimination in that it is an apparently neutral rule that affects the LGBTQ, and only the LGBTQ, community. The district’s directive limits teachers’ abilities to create an LGBTQ friendly learning environment and creates a systemic barrier towards full inclusivity of LGBTQ students.” 

Rosenkranz met with Thayer on Dec. 2 to discuss the complaint and possible resolutions. During the meeting the complainant indicated that “asking pronouns is a strategy and not a requirement. She would like teachers to be able to determine for themselves if they would like to ask students for their names and pronouns on a get to know you basis.” During this meeting Superintendent Rosenkranz stated that regarding preferred pronouns “district policy states that students can be asked privately by an appropriate person.” 

Rosenkranz also expressed concerns about the ages of students being asked for their pronoun preference. Sementi’s report indicated that Thayer thought it would be appropriate for students as young as 4th or 5th grade. During staff interviews the age at which students should be asked about pronoun preference varied from as low as 4th grade and as high as only asking students in high school. 

OSPI Guidance for Gender-Inclusive Schools states that “Washington public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender and gender-expansive students.” That guidance goes on to state “In Washington Public Schools, students have the right to be addressed by their requested name, pronoun (e.g., he/him, she/her, they/them, etc.), and gender designation.” 

Conclusion of investigation

The investigation process included interviews with the superintendent, building level administration, teaching staff from every level, paraprofessional staff, a child psychologist consulting with the district, and counseling staff. Several of the staff members interviewed also are parents of students attending school in La Center. 

In his final report, Sementi stated: 

“The investigation found no requirement in law or policy that teachers must canvas all of their students regarding pronoun preference. Similarly the investigator found nowhere in law that prohibits this practice. This gap in definition is typically addressed through policy and procedure. While Policy 3211 admirably requires an ‘inclusive approach toward transgender and gender expansive students’ it does not specifically outline how that is to be achieved nor does it require or prohibit teachers from canvassing students about their pronoun preference. The investigator believes that the Civil Rights of LGBTQ students, or teachers, are not being violated by the recent directive.’’

Tuesday’s board meeting

 A Fox 12 News report indicated that more than half of those who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting spoke in favor of allowing the teachers to ask students for their preferred pronouns. However, Rosenkranz told Clark County Today that more than half of the 17 who spoke publicly at the meeting were not patrons of the La Center School District.

“The majority of the crowd was not from our community,’’ Rosenkranz said. “They were from out of town. They weren’t our patrons.’’

Justine Stimmel is a parent of three La Center students. Stimmel asked a question regarding how many La Center staff members were supportive of asking students for their pronouns. Stimmel provided the results of her own research, which indicated those staff members were outnumbered.

“I want to know how many teachers and staff did not sign the complaint,’’ Stimmel said. “After research, it appears that 31 teachers, and staff are in favor of this complaint. There are 253 employees in the district, including teachers, coaches, and other staff. Twelve percent of them have signed their name on this complaint, which should tell you something. Clearly the majority of the staff are standing with Mr. Rosenkranz, and so are many La Center families. It’s obvious Mr. Rosenkranz has not violated discrimination laws and or policies.”

Superintendent philosophy on family

Rosenkranz is in his second year as superintendent of La Center schools. He has been in the district for 10 years, previously serving as assistant principal at the high school, Special Education director and assistant superintendent. He told Clark County Today his directive was also a way to preserve the role families serve in their students’ education.

“The challenge is we’re getting into family territory,’’ Rosenkranz told Clark County Today. “We need to teach Reading, Writing, Math and Science. We’re in the family business. Families send their kids to school to learn how to read and write and learn science. We are going to do that. The power of the family is paramount in our business. You can’t circumvent that. You have to partner with that. I don’t want to be in the business of knowing more about their child than they do.’’

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