Non-binary Charleston Co. teacher says pronoun policy would hurt students

The Charleston County School Board introduced a new policy that would ban staff from discussing gender issues.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 3:51 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 22, 2023 at 6:52 PM EDT

CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School Board introduced a new policy that would ban staff from discussing gender issues, especially when it comes to gender identity and sexuality.

But a teacher in the district says the school board has no right to prevent employees from expressing their preferred pronouns.

“Everyone has names and to say, well, you’re not allowed to use those [pronouns], but these, no one has the right to tell you that you can’t use those,” Parker Berdon said.

Berdon works in the Charleston County School District and identifies as non-binary. Berdon uses they/them pronouns.

Among other things, the newly introduced proposed policy bars staff from asking students and coworkers to refer to them as anything other than the sex listed on “the legal identification used to verify employment eligibility”.

“It does make me feel like a second-class citizen,” Berdon said. “Like my own identity and my own opinions just don’t matter to the people who are supposed to have my back at the school board.”

The policy also prohibits teachers from discussing sexual choice, sexual preferences or gender fluidity and bars them from engaging in dialog with any students about preferred pronouns.

The policy proposal is actually an addition to the current employee code, Policy GBEB.

School Board Member Ed Kelley, the policy liaison for the board and who brought the policy, says the impetus for the change is stability in the classroom. He says he received a letter from a parent that deeply troubled him.

“I got an email from a father and his second-grade daughter had a nightmare and came downstairs crying asking ‘daddy am I going to wake up a boy tomorrow’,” Kelley said. “That’s not because this little girl was taught that, but because that little girl was exposed to a CCSD staff member who announced to the class that, tomorrow, I am going to be referred to as a Mr. instead of a Ms.”

To be clear, Berdon is not the teacher referred to in the letter from the parent Kelley mentioned.

He says students do not need the distraction of gender issues when the focus should be on reading, writing and arithmetic. Kelley says conversations about gender and gender identity should be done at home.

“I believe that is 100% a conversation that should happen in the home,” Kelley said. “The point of the policy is to support the students who are suffering from a psychological disorder and need help and then redirect that conversation back to home where it belongs.”

Kelley says the goal is to keep students focused on learning and to keep indoctrination out of the classroom. Berdon argues, as teachers, it is their job to expand the minds of children, within reason. Berdon rejects the idea that teachers can indoctrinate anyone.

“If I have the ability to indoctrinate students, I would indoctrinate them to do their homework, pick up their pencils off the floor, you know, that kind of thing,” Berdon said.

Berdon’s partner, Lili Allen, is a therapist working predominately with the LGBTQ+ community. She says it is policies like this that create a hostile environment for students.

“We know that more than half of transgender and non-binary you seriously considered attempting suicide last year,” Allen said. “So that’s before a lot of this stuff even started happening. So not having a safe place to go to school and to learn increases the already high suicide risk in these students.”

Kelley says the policy does not apply to students and they are allowed to express their pronouns however they like. While discussions on gender issues would be barred from the classroom, certain employees, like administrators and mental health staff, would still have the authority to discuss the issues with individual students.

Kelley also says he is working with district staff to create a policy that would put guardrails around how a staff member transitions. He says that policy has not been introduced but it seeks ways to limit confusion and disruption among students.

“We bounced around some ideas like the transition has to happen over the summer,” Kelley said. “If you’re going to transition from presenting as one gender to presenting as another that needs to be done with the support of the staff. You don’t want the shock factor. . . we have to protect the kids.”

The policy does allow transgender and gender-nonconforming staff to be hired and teach, but they would have to be addressed by the pronouns listed on the government documentation they submit when they are hired.

Because the policy falls under staff conduct, violations could result in disciplinary action, including suspension and termination.

The new policy was introduced at the last board meeting and is expected to be discussed again on Monday.

Activists have started a petition to get board members to reject the policy.