Fort Riley Middle School in Kansas.
CNN  — 

A Kansas teacher is suing her school district superintendent, board members and principal after being suspended for not using a student’s preferred name.

Pamela Ricard, who teaches math at Fort Riley Middle School, says she refuses to use the preferred names and pronouns of transgender and nonbinary students because it violates her religious beliefs.

After being disciplined multiple times for refusing to use a student’s preferred name, Ricard filed a federal lawsuit against the Geary County Schools Unified School District on Monday.

In the lawsuit, she argues that denying requests to allow her to ignore students’ preferred names and pronouns “deprived her of due process and equal protection of law” and violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and exercise of religion. Ricard also accused the defendants of breaching their contract with her.

Ricard maintains in the lawsuit that her decision does not harm her students, but LGBTQ organizations and medical associations throughout the country have consistently stressed the detrimental consequences of misgendering children and ignoring their preferred names.

Misgendering a child can seriously impact their ​self confidence and mental health, according to Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, a national organization supporting LGBTQ+ students and educators in K-12 schools.

“Ms. Ricard’s faith teaches her that God immutably creates each person as male or female,” the lawsuit states.

“We proposed a neutral policy to the district over eight months ago that would allow teachers to uniformly address students by their enrolled names,” Josh Ney, Ricard’s lawyer, told CNN. “That proposal was summarily rejected by the district, so we brought this lawsuit due to the constant threat of termination hanging over my client’s head.”

Fort Riley Middle School did not respond to CNN’s multiple requests for comment. Mark Edwards, the legal counsel representing the Geary County Schools Unified School District, told CNN they have no comment.

According to the suit, after one incident of Ricard using a student’s birth name instead of their preferred name, then principal Shannon Molt sent an email on March 31 to all teachers at Fort Riley Middle School, saying: “When we have a student that requests to go by a preferred name that is different than their given name, our district honors the request. Once you are aware of a preferred name, use that name for the student.”

Ricard acknowledges in the suit that despite being told that another student who was listed in school records as female preferred to be addressed by a different name, Ricard called the student “Miss [student’s last name].” Ricard was reminded multiple times to use the student’s preferred name and pronouns, but continued to call the student by their last name only.

In April 2021, the lawsuit says Ricard received a three-day suspension with pay for violations of 11 district policies, including rules on bullying and diversity and inclusion. Multiple appeals were denied by school officials, the lawsuit says.

“Any policy that requires Ms. Ricard to refer to a student by a gendered, non-binary, or plural pronoun (e.g., he/him, she/her, they/them, zhe/zher, etc.) or salutation (Mr., Miss, Ms.) or other gendered language that is different from the student’s biological sex actively violates Ms. Ricard’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says.

Ricard may face “further disciplinary action,” including termination, if she continues to violate the policy, according to the lawsuit.

“I continue to enjoy teaching my students day in and day out, but the stigma of being officially labeled a ‘bully’ simply for using a student’s enrolled last name has been disheartening,” Ricard told CNN in an email. “I love all my students, but I shouldn’t be forced to contradict my core beliefs in order to teach math in a public school.”

‘This is about the basic rights and dignity of a human being’

In the suit, Ricard says that not using a student’s preferred pronouns does not “interfere with the efficient functioning of a school” or “create a hostile learning environment.”

However, LGBTQ organizations who support and advocate for the rights of students, as well as major health associations in the US, strongly disagree with this perspective.

“We know from research, long term, very powerful research that affirming a young person’s gender leads to better health and well-being,” said Joel Baum, senior director of the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, which supports gender-diverse youth. “This is about the basic rights and dignity of a human being. Your beliefs do not allow you to refuse to acknowledge who a student is.”

The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and the Pediatric Endocrine Society, and dozens of other medical associations, have officially recognized the importance of affirming a young person’s name and pronouns, Baum said.

LGBTQ youth who attend schools where they are not protected by policies preventing discrimination against them “report lower GPAs and are more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe,” Willingham-Jaggers told CNN.

“Transgender youth are more likely to consider suicide than their peers, and experience other mental health crises which are exacerbated when they face this kind of stigma and erasure in the classroom,” she said.

Yet transgender youth across the country continue to face discrimination when attempting to stand up for who they are, or speak up when they feel threatened.

In Kansas alone, over 50% of LGBTQ+ secondary school students who experience harassment don’t report the incident due to fear it will make the situation worse, according GLSEN Kansas Statewide Organizer Will Rapp.

“This incident isn’t an isolated issue. According to GLSEN research, more than 40% of transgender students in Kansas report being unable to use their chosen name and correct pronouns in school,” Rapp told CNN. “When educators express this kind of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment it sends a message that school is not a safe place and many LGBTQ+ youth and especially transgender youth feel unable to approach trusted educators for support.”

“Every educator must be held accountable for creating a safe and affirming environment for all students, regardless of gender identity,” Rapp said.

Along with being unable to use their preferred names and pronouns, 85% of transgender students reported being harassed or assaulted in school, according to GLSEN.

A need for stronger policies and training

Ricard argues in her lawsuit that the district’s policy on names and pronouns has been inconsistent and does not provide teachers with clear guidance on determining the preferences of a student and parents.

Following her initial suspension in April 2021, the school sent out a “Use of Preferred Names and Pronouns” guidance document that asked staff members to share the student’s request with administrators or counselors and respect their chosen pronouns, according to the lawsuit.

In September 2021, the Geary County Schools Unified School District’s Board of Education also adopted an addition to the district’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy to require educators to refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns, the lawsuit says.

Ricard’s requests for religious accommodations that would exempt her from having to follow the guidance and policies were denied, according to the lawsuit.

“This idea of religious exemption, simply because you aren’t comfortable with something, flies in the face of so many aspects of public education,” Baum said. “Imagine if a science teacher who believes the world was created in six days isn’t comfortable teaching evolution. That wouldn’t fly. Beliefs are one thing, and conduct is something else.”

Transgender students in the United States face obstacles that extend far beyond the classroom.

Arkansas last year became the first state to ban gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy, for minors. West Virginia also signed a bill into law in 2021, which was temporarily blocked, that prohibited transgender girls and women from participating in girls’ and women’s secondary school or higher education sports teams.

A judge in Texas on Friday also blocked the state from enforcing Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate gender-affirming care of minors as “child abuse,” which parents and advocates criticized as another attack on transgender children.

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed to this report.