PENDLETON, Ind.—An Indiana school district violated a guidance counselor’s right to free speech by retaliating against and ultimately firing her for saying parents should know about their teenage children’s interest in “transitioning” to the opposite sex, the former counselor argues in a lawsuit filed Thursday.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that protects religious liberty and represents veteran high school counselor Kathy McCord, says in the lawsuit that South Madison Community School Corporation in Pendleton, Indiana, had no authority to tell McCord who she may speak to after hours and off school property.
ADF also contends that McCord’s religious rights as a Christian were trampled by the South Madison school district, specifically her closely held value that parents should be involved in important decisions regarding their children.
“I would like to have my job back; I would like to go back to school,” McCord, a guidance counselor for 25 years at Pendleton Heights High School, said Wednesday in an interview with The Daily Signal. “I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else. It’s terrible what they’re doing to parents. And I really wasn’t ready to retire, so I’d like to go back to work.”
After The Daily Signal exposed the South Madison school district’s hidden policy of supporting students’ gender transitions without necessarily informing parents, the school board fired McCord on March 9 for confirming the policy’s existence. Some school board members, however, later changed their stated reasons for terminating her multiple times.
The school district’s so-called Gender Support Plan required McCord to instruct teachers to withhold information regarding “gender changes” from some parents based on a student’s say-so.
That provision prompted teacher Amanda Keegan to resign in protest.
“When I had to look at that parent, and feel like I was lying to that parent …, I was sick to my stomach. I can’t lie to parents. I can’t do that again,” Keegan told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview.
Speaking Wednesday to The Daily Signal, McCord said that South Madison’s actions forced her to comply with decisions that negatively affected students and their families.
“By not working with parents, [the district’s Gender Support Plan] harmed the students,” the former counselor said.
After an investigation lasting over three months, the South Madison school board voted unanimously to fire McCord, amid boos and jeers from the audience at its March 9 meeting. In support of McCord, T-shirts worn in the bipartisan crowd of parents and teachers read: “Keep Kathy.”
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” one parent told the board.
Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit on McCord’s behalf in the Indianapolis-based U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
ADF argues that the South Madison school district violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires government entities to prove that every contested policy is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.”
ADF points out in the court filing:
South Madison and its employees told Mrs. McCord that she had no choice but to comply with the Gender Support Plan policy and threatened her with adverse employment action if she chose not to comply, telling her that South Madison would treat noncompliance as insubordination.
South Madison cannot demonstrate that the Gender Support Plan policy is the least restrictive means of furthering any interest it might have; instead, South Madison could have, for example: allowed Mrs. McCord to refrain from using pronouns to which she objects while simultaneously avoiding pronouns that a student has requested not be used; allowed her to use nicknames; or, transferred Mrs. McCord’s students with a Gender Support Plan to one of the other school counselors who doesn’t share her objections.
As a result, South Madison cannot demonstrate that [its] Gender Support Plan policy is ‘the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.’
In requiring teachers, counselors, and other school system staff to speak in highly specific terms that go against their political and religious beliefs, ADF maintains, South Madison is complicit in compelling speech:
By requiring Mrs. McCord to participate in the Gender Support Plan policy, including by socially transitioning students and hiding some students’ social transition from their parents, South Madison has compelled Mrs. McCord to speak its viewpoint on a matter of public concern.
“Mrs. McCord had no valid official duty to participate in students’ social transition, or hide it from parents,” Vincent Wagner, senior counsel in ADF’s Center for Parental Rights, told The Daily Signal.
“[It’s] so important to highlight [that] we know kids do so much better when parents are involved with their lives,” Wagner added. “Both the social science data and common sense are clear—kids need their parents’ help, especially in difficult situations.”
In a statement to gathered parents after the school board voted to fire McCord, board member Buck Evans accused her of falsifying documents sent to The Daily Signal.
Evans apparently was referring to the school system’s secretive Gender Support Plan, which McCord had confirmed but not provided to The Daily Signal.
The school board shared no evidence of any falsification of documents, and its “fact-finding” sheet provided to local news reporters contained different reasons for firing McCord than those suggested by Evans and board President Mike Hanna.
Email timestamps and additional evidence provided from The Daily Signal revealed that the statements made by Evans are false, although the South Madison school district continues to refuse comment to any news outlet concerning the discrepancies.
In addition, McCord said in an interview with The Daily Signal that during its three-month investigation, the South Madison school board confirmed the legitimacy and accuracy of the Gender Support Plan, which had been edited by Assistant School Superintendent Andrew Kruer.
Since McCord’s termination, Indiana has passed legislation requiring schools to notify parents if their child requests to change his or her gender and personal pronouns.
The South Madison district’s policy of helping a student hide “new pronouns” from parents became illegal under HB 1608, signed into law May 4 by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican.
But South Madison School Superintendent Mark Hall, who recommended that McCord be fired, told a parent May 11 that HB 1608 applies only to instruction in sex education. Hall also stated that the legislation made no mention of Gender Support Plans or how a school collects information about a student’s decision to change genders, according to an email obtained by The Daily Signal:
Additional evidence concerning possible malpractice and wrongful termination by South Madison is expected within the coming months, as the lawsuit progresses.
While the existence of South Madison’s Gender Support Plan and its use in school have been confirmed by the school board, no official copy or template has been published on the school district’s websites, as are other medical and counseling documents.
The support she has received from parents both locally and nationally has been “overwhelming,” McCord told The Daily Signal. Other teachers and counselors in similar situations, she said, “need to follow what they know is right.”
“Times are difficult right now, but we need to have the best interests of our students and their families at heart,” she said. “We know the right thing to do, and you just have to stand up for it.”
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