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Gresham school district to pay transgender teacher $60,000 after harassment

The Times profiled Leo Soell's cancer recovery in 2015. Soell is in remission, but says harassment at work lead to settlement.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Leo Soell looks in the mirror in 2015. Soell, who is transgender, settled a complaint with the Gresham-Barlow School District. Soell, a fifth-grade teacher in the district, said that teachers and administrators harassed them after Soell came out as transgender.A Portland-area school district has agreed to pay a transgender elementary school teacher $60,000, and provide training on accommodating transgender staff.

Leo Soell, a fifth grade teacher in the Gresham Barlow School District, threatened to file a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industry against Gresham-Barlow schools.

Soell was featured in The Times in 2015 in a series about Tualatin's Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center and its work with transgender patients.

Soell is transgender and doesn’t identify as either male or female, instead Soell prefers the gender neutral pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

Soell and the district settled before the complaint was formally filed.

“The Gresham-Barlow School District is committed to supporting me,” Soell said about the settlement with the district. “I am completely relieved … The settlement sends a clear message that they are supporting me.”

A national debate currently rages around the treatment and protection of transgender people, especially students in schools. This month, a firestorm of controversy was 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.

When Soell was hired in 2012, they were was using a female name given at birth.

Breast cancer and the required surgery and chemotherapy put Soell on medical leave. Upon returning to work, 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.”

Soell said they were harassed at school by staff and administrators after coming out as transgender.

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

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 the school’s principal, who 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 and found “no substantiated evidence of harassment,” but would not release the results of the investigation, saying its findings were privileged and confidential information related to a personnel issue.

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 Elementary School 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.