Teachable Moments? Controversial Classroom Topics and Teachers’ Employment Rights



In today’s highly outspoken society it appears that everyone has an opinion and is more than willing to share it with the world. Yet, oftentimes voicing an opinion can cause unanticipated backlash and even lead to severe consequences for employees who speak out. This can be all the more true when the opinion is on a sensitive topic and is directed at a young audience.

For example, the case of Moss v. Texarkana Ark. Sch. Dist., 2017 BL 63583 (W.D. Ark. Mar 01, 2017), shows the problems that can arise for teachers, based on the disciplining of a Texarkana, Arkansas teacher who made controversial LGBT comments to her middle-school class that sparked concern with parents and the school board.

The Rise in Popularity of Transgender Rights

Gender identification is certainly not a new topic; and over the past few years the topic of gender identification and sex reassignment has seen a rise in popularity in the media and pop-culture.

One only needs to look to the spring of 2015 to see this rise when Olympian and reality television patriarch Bruce Jenner announced in an interview with Diane Sawyer that he now identified as a trans-woman. This interview captured an audience of roughly 20.7 million viewers.

A year later, the topic was making headlines again. In 2016 a law in North Carolina which regulated transgender people’s use of public restrooms sparked controversy across the country.  

With the rising popularity of LGBT rights and issues comes the conundrum of how to handle controversial comments surrounding the topic; especially in the world of elementary education.

As trendy as the topic has become, school boards have not necessarily had a chance to make concrete policies and guidelines about how teachers should approach the topic. So what happens when a teacher makes controversial comments but no set guidelines are in place?

Arkansas school district suspends teacher for inappropriate LGBT comments

In Moss v. Texarkana Ark. Sch. Dist., a former teacher filed a Title VII suit alleging that the school district discriminated against her on the basis of race by suspending her without pay and imposing a burdensome improvement plan on her.

What separates this case from run-of-mill employment discrimination cases is the reason why the district suspended her. The teacher told her seventh grade science class that soy products degenerate the male hormone and concluded that soy milk would “make [] the male want to be female.”

These statements sparked a discussion amongst the students about whether boys who used soy products would grow up to become homosexual. These statements were even recorded on a cell phone and the teacher did not dispute the accuracy of them.

Concerned parents eventually complained and the school district suspended the teacher for, among other things, deviating from the seventh grade science curriculum map and failing to maintain a professional relationship with her students. Upon her return, she was placed on an improvement plan.

Tackling LGBT Comments When No Policy is in Place

In her Title VII suit, the teacher attempted to argue that no rule in either the Texarkana Arkansas School District Licensed Personnel Policy Handbook or the Arkansas Code of Ethics for Educators was violated when she made these comments.

The court however, was not persuaded by this assertion and found that her comments violated the Code of Ethics, which requires teachers to “maintain a professional relationship with each student.” Summary judgment was granted to the school district on all claims, since the court found that the district offered a legitimate reason for disciplining the teacher.

Speak Up, Speak Out, Get Out?

For most of us, the better choice at work is probably not to talk about controversial subjects at all rather than risk offending co-workers or clients and suffering the consequences. However, teachers can be in the uncomfortable position of having to confront these issues in the effort to educate our children.

While the teacher in Moss probably could have avoided sharing her curious theories about soy products with her students, teachers and school districts will increasingly have to figure out the best ways to deal with controversial subjects and protect the rights of both children and their teachers.

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