About 100 middle and high school students in West Point held a walkout in support of a teacher who was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronoun.
The West Point Public School Board voted unanimously 5-0 Thursday night to support division Superintendent Laura Abel’s recommendation to terminate French teacher Peter Vlaming’s employment, saying his actions harassed and discriminated against the student and were insubordinate.
The walkout began at 12:15 p.m. outside of the high school, and students trickled out of the school to protest the firing.
Students held signs reading “Justice for Vlaming” and “Save Vlaming,” as well as made shirts with French flags and signatures from classmates on them.
The students joined hands, formed a resistance chain around the high school’s front lawn and chanted “Justice for Vlaming” and other supportive chants during the walkout.
A recurring theme for many of the students was the need to balance the student’s rights with the teacher’srights.
High school junior Forrest Rohde helped organize the walkout and said he is outraged by the School Board’s decision.
“Everyone has rights, the student has rights, but so does Mr. Vlaming,” Rohde said. “This is violating Mr. Vlaming’s First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. He cares about his students and we care about him.” Vlaming refused to use the student’s preferred pronoun citing his own religious beliefs.
Fellow junior Zachary Gonzalez said everyone has the right to choose how they want to live their lives, including the student and Mr. Vlaming.
“I don’t think it’s fair. The transgender student’s hopes, beliefs and rights overrode Mr. Vlaming’s,” Gonzalez said. “I believe that you can be whoever you want to be gay, lesbian, trans, it doesn’t matter you should be able to be who you want to be. But you also have rights of the First Amendment such as freedom of speech and religion and Mr. Vlaming’s are being shut out.”
Eighth grader Cassidy Heidelberg helped organize the middle school student’s participation in the walkout. She agreed with other students that both sides should have their rights respected and valued.
“I don’t think they should shut Mr. Vlaming and his rights out like that,” Heidelberg said. “He has four children, a wife and it’s hard enough earning enough as a teacher.”
The walkout lasted around two hours, school dismisses at 2:37 p.m.
Abel was OK with the students’ actions.
“Today ...students left the school building to participate in a walkout on the front lawn. At all times, students were monitored by school staff and the division resource officer and were on school property. Given the peaceful nature of the event, students will not be disciplined for this instance of leaving lunch or class,” she said.
“We understand that some students are unhappy with the decision made by the School Board last evening and felt it important to let them express their viewpoint concerning this matter.”
Thursday night hearing
Vlaming had been on administrative leave since Oct. 31 for refusing to use the ninth-grade student’s preferred male pronoun, citing his own religious beliefs. Vlaming, 47, taught French at the division for seven years and was active in the community.
It is the School Board’s policy to hold hearings for those put on administrative leave; it is the employee’s choice as to whether the hearing is public.
The hearing drew more than 100 people who offered support for both sides. Community members in line were upset when school officials turned them away; as only 38 people were allowed into the high school’s chorus room for the hearing. Some in line to support Vlaming held “Justice for Vlaming” signs.
Abel and school administrators placed Vlaming on administrative suspension, citing harassment, discrimination and insubordination. Vlaming was told multiple times by school administrators to use the student’s preferred pronoun, but he did not comply, according to school officials.
School administrators, Abel, Vlaming and students all spoke as witnesses at the public hearing.
Vlaming’s attorney Shawn Voyles argued that the division’s gender identity policy had no guidelines or pronoun-specific section.
Voyles also argued that discrimination violations require physical actions or verbal harassment — whereas Vlaming is being penalized for something he did not say.
West Point High School Principal Jonathan Hochman spoke of his conversations with Vlaming about accommodating the student’s request of the preferred pronoun.
“Mr. Vlaming also told me that he respects the student and misses the female version of this student,” Hochman said.
The student and parents met with Vlaming on multiple occasions and expressed their concerns. Vlaming shared his position with the parents and said he would use the student’s new name and avoid offensive pronouns, according to Voyles.
But after an incident where the student was wearing virtual reality goggles and almost ran into a wall in the hallway and Vlaming shouted “don’t let her run into the wall,” the parents said it was unhealthy for their child to remain in Vlaming’s class, according to school division’s attorney Stacy Haney.
Hochman then recommended Vlaming be placed on administrative leave; Abel approved the recommendation and put Vlaming on leave to investigate the situation.
Abel said she ultimately wanted to reach a resolution with Vlaming. Abel went to Vlaming and said he could come back to school if he started using the male pronoun for the student and met with the student and parents informing them that he would use it.
Vlaming said he would not comply with Abel’s request and Abel then recommended that the School Board terminate his employment.
Vlaming read a statement before the board and said that he loved and respected all of his students and their rights, including this one.
Before the board went into a closed session to discuss the issue and reach a decision, Haney asked Vlaming if he were to return to teaching at the school, would he still refuse to use the student’s preferred pronoun.
Vlaming responded that he would still not use the student’s male pronoun.
The student’s identity was not revealed during the hearing and neither the student nor parents participated.
Voyles said he and Vlaming will look at his options, including filing an appeal with the King William County Circuit Court.
Vlaming lives in Williamsburg with his wife and four children and is completing his master’s degree in school administration at the College of William and Mary.
Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038, email@example.com or @ashleyrluck on Twitter