GRESHEM, Ore. – Hall Elementary School transgender teacher Leo Soell will receive a $60,000 payout from the Gresham-Barlow School District for emotional distress tied to alleged harassment by co-workers.
The fifth-grade teacher came out as transgender after a mastectomy for breast cancer early last year. Soell does not identify as male or female, and prefers to be addressed with the pronoun “they.” Soell contends they requested that school officials honor they decision, but alleges Hall’s then principal ordered staff to ignore they, The Oregonian reports.
According to the news site:
If kids asked whether Soell was a boy or a girl, district leaders told Soell to respond, “We all have private lives, and it would not be appropriate to talk about our private lives during the school day.” A district spokeswoman last year said administrators were worried about “age appropriateness.”
Soell, 25, explained they rationale behind they complicated gender to the Portland Tribune last August.
“I identify as transgender. Specifically, I say transmasculine and genderqueer,” Soell said. “The genderqueer piece comes from not identifying within the gender binary of male and female – so (I fit in) along the spectrum, I between.”
Soell said they grew up a girl but didn’t feel like they fit in as a girl or boy, then tried female hormone therapy, but it left they feeling “off,” they said. After kicking the hormones, they discovered a puberty awakening.
“Once I figured out who I was, finally, with words, it’s interesting because my body sort of started changing by itself,” they said. “You can imagine all of these things combined – and this sounds ridiculous – but it actually felt like my actual puberty had started as a 23-year-old.”
Regardless, Soell contends they co-workers were not supportive of they lifestyle, and made her life difficult at work by repeatedly referring to her as “lady,” or using female pronouns. Some also allegedly occupied a unisex bathroom on campus to prevent Soell from using the facility, they alleges.
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That’s when Soell got serious filed a grievance through her union, which negotiated a deal that required officials to use “they” and to use the nonprofit transgender advocacy group TransActive Gender Center to train school staff on how to behave around they.
Soell reported the alleged continued abuse and district officials investigated but found no evidence of harassment.
Soell then hired high profile gay rights attorney Jennifer Middleton, who threatened to file a U.S. Bureau of Labor and Industries complaint against the district over the issue, The Oregonian reports.
“When we made clear that we were going forward with the complaint, they said, ‘Let’s try and settle,'” Middleton said.
In a deal hammered out with the help of a federal judge, Gresham-Barlow officials agreed to pay Soell $60,000 for attorney fees and emotional distress, to designate all of Hall Elementary’s staff bathrooms as gender-neutral, and to install gender-neutral bathrooms in all of the district’s schools within the next three years, according to the news site.
The agreement also directs district officials to develop guidelines regarding transgender employees for next school year and to train principals on how to properly interact with the transgendered.
“I actually feel safe now,” Soell told The Oregonian after the settlement. “There will always be people who push the boundaries, but I’m not worried about them anymore because I know my district supports me.”