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Gresham district settles with transgender teacher

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - After Hall Elementary School teacher Leo Soell is pleased now that the Gresham-Barlow School District agreed to provide gender neutral bathrooms in all its schools and provide training on accommodating transgender staff. 
The Gresham-Barlow School District recently agreed to pay a transgender elementary school teacher $60,000, and as part of the settlement, provide gender neutral bathrooms in all its schools and provide training on accommodating transgender staff.

“The Gresham-Barlow School District is committed to supporting me,” said fifth-grade teacher Leo Soell of the settlement with the district. “I am completely relieved.”

Soell, who teaches at Hall Elementary School, threatened to file a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industry against Gresham-Barlow schools, but the two sides settled before the complaint was formally filed.

“The settlement sends a clear message that they are supporting me,” they said.

A national debate currently rages around the treatment and protection of transgender people, especially students in schools. Earlier in May 2016, there was a firestorm of controversy unleashed by a “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to all public schools. It directed schools to protect transgender students and allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with, not their gender at birth.

The issue of discrimination against transgender people has had a great deal of scrutiny and debate recently, partly sparked by the transition of Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner.

“We are at a critical moment in transgender history,” Soell said.

Soell identifies as neither male or female and uses the pronouns “them” or “they.” When hired in 2012, Soell was using a female name given at birth.

Breast cancer and the required surgery and chemotherapy put Soell on medical leave. Upon returning from medical leave in May 2015, a request was submitted to change personnel records to reflect Soell’s legal name — Leo Soell — and begin using gender-neutral titles and pronouns of “them” and “their.” Despite multiple discussions, Soell’s complaint indicated dissatisfaction with the district’s response.

“It is sort of hard to describe the level of physical, emotional and psychological lack of safety I felt at work,” Soell said.

Soell’s complaint details harassment at school and said Principal (Todd) Graves and other staff subjected “me to additional scrutiny, differential treatment, avoidance and rude and hostile interactions.”

The complaint said one teacher yelled at Soell in the hall “saying that my gender is a ‘belief system’ and I do not have the right to make other people follow and that God is on her side.”

The incident occurred in front of principal Graves and he took no action, the complaint alleged.

In another example, “(Soell) required that when children asked me questions like, ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ or ‘why did you change your name?’ I had to say, ‘We all have private lives and it would not be appropriate to talk about our private lives during the school day,” the complaint said. The complaint said no other teacher was required to answer questions in this way.

The district investigated the situation, but would not release the results of the investigation “because it is privileged and confidential information related to a personnel issue.”

The district said its investigation revealed “no substantiated evidence of harassment.”

But, earlier this month, the district agreed to pay Soell the $60,000 settlement for “actual damages, emotional distress and attorney’s fees and costs.”

Gresham-Barlow’s statement said, the payment “was a fiscally prudent decision made by the district’s insurance carrier to avoid paying further legal costs and attorney’s fees in a protracted legal dispute” and that the settlement should not be construed as “evidence or an admission of liability or wrongful conduct of any kind by the school district.”

The district’s statement also said, “The agreement includes a three-step action plan for dealing with awareness building among staff relating to transgender employees.”

The district agreed to provide gender neutral staff bathrooms in all buildings in the next three years.

The settlement also said TransActive, a transgender rights organization, will provide training to administrators this summer and Hall staff in the fall. Guidance documents will be made available on how to properly refer to and accommodate transgender staff.

“I do think the training will be effective,” Soell said. “It’s a chance for people to have their questions answered. And, I’m not the only one doing the educating.”

Soell said students have been supportive and remind each other to use the preferred pronouns when referring to their teacher.

Although this case did not apply to students, when asked about protecting transgender students, the district said in a statement: “Students and staff are protected through existing legislation. We are working to help staff and students understand how to best interact in respectful ways with transgender peers. We are committed to fostering an educational environment free of discrimination.”

Soell’s main message is: “Trans people are just regular people. I’m just a fifth-grade teacher.” And Soell is anxious to get back to teaching without distraction.