This week, a Virginia high school teacher was fired because he wouldn’t use the preferred pronoun of a female student who claimed she was now a male.
The unanimous decision from the five members of the West Point School Board to fire Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School, which has roughly 265 students, followed a four-hour hearing. The board only discussed the case for an hour before rendering their decision.
As Richmond.com reports, Vlaming, 47, had taught at the high school for almost seven years and had taught the student in the 2017-18 school year, when the student still identified as female. Over the summer of 2018, the girl decided she was a boy. This school year, Vlamming addressed the girl by the new name she had chosen, but would not use the girl’s preferred new pronoun because it conflicted with Vlaming’s Christian faith.
The student claimed she felt singled out. But the only reference to Vlamming actively calling the girl by the female pronoun rather than her name, according to witnesses, came on Halloween, when the student was using a virtual reality headset. As the student was about to bump into a wall, Vlaming told students to stop “her.” That incident prompted a discussion with administrators, and Vlaming said he would not use the student’s preferred pronoun. He was subsequently suspended.
A year ago, the school district changed its nondiscrimination policies, although Vlaming’s lawyer, Shawn Voyles, pointed out during the hearing that no specific guidance on the use of gender pronouns was mentioned.
West Point High Principal Jonathan Hochman, who testified he had instructed Vlaming to use the student’s new pronoun, said, “I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening.” West Point schools Superintendent Laura Abel stated, “That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that. They felt disrespected.” The school district’s attorney, Stacy Haney, snapped, “Does this board expect its employees to follow its policies or not?”
Voyles countered that as a public employee, Vlaming had the right of free speech, adding, “One of those rights that is not curtailed is to be free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience.”
Ironically, Vlaming and his lawyer noted that during Hochman’s testimony at the hearing, when he described his conversation with Vlaming after the incident on Halloween, Hochman referred to the student as female, saying he told Vlaming: “You need to say sorry for that. And refer to her by the male pronoun.”
Vlaming said he loved and respected all of his students and was trying to find an answer for the situation based on “mutual tolerance” but was rejected. He said his point of view had been common in “most of the world for most of human history,” adding succinctly, “That is not tolerance. That is coercion.”
According to Richmond,com, the hearing was jammed, primarily with supporters of Vlaming; one parent, Jennifer Hayne, said, “If there’s no policy in place, how can they just let him go?”
Following the decision, the school board wrote:
The School Board made a difficult decision after thoughtful consideration. It is the Board’s responsibility to adopt and uphold policy, and we unanimously voted to affirm the Superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Mr. Vlaming. West Point Public Schools has the responsibility to ensure all students have a safe and supportive school environment where they can learn and thrive. We do not and cannot tolerate discrimination in any form, or actions that create a hostile environment for any member of our school family. Mr. Vlaming was asked repeatedly, over several weeks and by multiple administrators, to address a student by the pronouns with which this student identifies. The issue before us was not one mistaken slip of the tongue. Mr. Vlaming consistently refused to comply going forward -- including in a statement made at the hearing -- a willful violation of school board policy. While we understand that some do not agree with our decision, we hope to have discussions that help West Point Public Schools move forward, maintain our focus on excellence and instruction, and make a positive impact on the lives of our community’s children.
Vlaming could conceivably file a wrongful-termination lawsuit, but he has made no decision as yet. He said, “I have to research how we would do that, what that would entail. I do think it’s a serious question of First Amendment rights.” He concluded, “I am being punished for what I haven’t said.”