In late March, 2022, the parents of three eighth-graders in the Kiel, Wisconsin Area School District were notified of a Title IX complaint and pending investigation. It alleged the boys sexually harassed another student. The complaint cited their failure to use the pronouns “they” and “them,” which the student had expressed preference for, and instead referred to the student with the pronouns “she” and “her.”
The district's position was that once a student has informed others of preferred alternate pronouns, any other term is a derogatory or sexist remark and punishable under Title IX.
The School District called the boys' behavior “bullying.” But Rosemary Rabidoux, the mother of one of the boys, thought the district's complaint took things too far.
She first thought it was “a gag, a joke,” but was told that the complaint was filed to support all students under Title IX, “regardless of sex, including: gender identity, change of sex, or transgender status.” She thought the district was overreaching by its handling of the matter.
Rabidoux's son got involved in the conflict over the student's pronouns when the student asked his friend to use “they” and “them” instead of “she” and “her.” “My son began defending his friend, saying, 'He doesn't have to use proper pronouns, it's his constitutional right. You can't make him say things,'” says Rabidoux.
Puzzled Students, Worried Parents and Community Uproar
The emotionally charged Title IX complaint became a public issue in the school district. Some people in the community began referring to the school district as the “Pronoun Police,” and several different threats were leveled by angry parents against the school.
But toward the end of May, the district suddenly dropped its complaint without explanation. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that legally, “mispronouning” alone is not sexual harassment under Title IX and that the school district may have infringed on the students' First and Fifth Amendment rights of free speech and due process.
Rabidoux says she will continue to monitor the matter to make certain no mention of the incident remains on her son's record. But this event tolls a deeper warning. In the U.S., mistakes often made by naive schoolchildren can quickly be blown out of proportion when administrators overreact to their behavior, rather than taking a breath and responding with an even hand.
National Title IX Student Rights Law Firm
Gender equality and identity statutes under Title IX remain subject to interpretation throughout the U.S., and words or actions can be misconstrued. Secondary school Title IX disciplinary violations attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento at the Lento Law Firm has successfully represented hundreds of students nationwide who become ensnared in bullying and sexual harassment disputes. The Lento Law Firm offers the expertise to assist you at every stage of the proceeding, for the best possible outcome. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation and case evaluation. Or you can reach the firm online.