Loudoun Co. School Board to codify free speech after courts overturn teacher suspension

WTOP's Neal Augenstein reports that the Loudoun County School Board is set to revise its policy on professional conduct.

In the wake of court rulings overturning the suspension of physical education teacher Tanner Cross, the Loudoun County School Board is set to vote on a revised professional conduct policy for public school employees.

On Aug. 30, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled the board failed to prove a lower court abused its discretion in ordering the reinstatement of Cross, who was put on administrative leave after criticizing a then-proposed transgender policy.

The draft policy, which the board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday evening, would specify that school employees have the First Amendment right to engage in protected speech in their free time, but also reinforces the expectation that employees support the school system’s equity and nondiscrimination practices.

Cross told the county’s school board that the use of preferred gender pronouns for transgender students was against his religion during a board meeting in May.

Also in August, the school board voted to pass a measure that would expand the rights of transgender students in the county’s schools.

Cross filed a civil lawsuit, seeking to stop the policy from going into effect. Two other teachers are seeking to join the suit.

In a section labeled “protected speech,” employees are reminded they are in a position of public trust.

“However, nothing in this policy or any other policy shall be interpreted as abridging an employee’s First Amendment right to engage in protected speech or their right to a private life outside their work responsibilities except as provided by law.”

Circuit Court Judge James Plowman had ruled Cross’s statements were made on his own time in a public meeting, rather on than a classroom, and that the suspension violated his free speech rights. Virginia’s Supreme Court upheld Plowman’s ruling.

The draft policy also includes a section called “Commitment to Equitable Treatment,” which says the school system rejects behavior and language that denigrates or demeans people of protected classes, and that such behavior “encourages discrimination, hatred, oppression, and violence.”

While not referring to the preferred-pronoun issue in Cross’s lawsuit, the draft policy specifies in-school actions: “Employees are expected to support the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity and nondiscrimination practices, through the performance of their job duties in order to promote respect, professionalism, civility and inclusivity for all persons.”

The board’s Human Resources and Talent Development Committee of the School Board had voted 3-0 to send the recommended policy to the full board for approval.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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