WEST POINT, VA (WWBT) - The West Point School Board has fired a high school French teacher following an ongoing transgender controversy issue at the school.
Peter Vlaming, a teacher within the school system for seven years, was fired from his position Thursday night after a five-and-a-half hour public hearing with the school board.
Vlaming’s attorney fought the Superintendent’s recommendation to dismiss the teacher based on claims of insubordination and repeated refusal to comply with directives made by WPPS administrators.
“Miracles can happen, but I was prepared that this might be the outcome,” Vlaming said after the decision.
Students and community members lined the hallways of the school, some in support for Vlaming, others in support for the transgender student.
Vlaming’s attorney argued his client has rights as a teacher.
“Tolerance is a two-way street,” said Shawn Voyles, Vlaming’s attorney. “My client respects this student’s rights; he is simply asking that his rights be respected as well… The student is absolutely free to identify as the student pleases. The school board adopted one viewpoint and required Mr. Vlaming, at the cost of his job, to repeat that ideology, repeat that viewpoint. That’s where it’s compelled speech. That’s where it violates his First Amendment right he still retains as a public employee."
This issue came to a crux during a virtual reality exercise back in October, where Vlaming said he called out "don't let her walk into the wall" as the transgender student walked in that direction.
Vlaming claimed it was a slip of the tongue.
“I’m totally happy to use the new name,” Vlaming said. “I’m happy to avoid female pronouns not to offend because I’m not here to provoke… but I can’t refer to a female as a male, and a male as a female in good conscious and faith.”
“That was in fact discriminatory because all the other students were being used pronouns, but this student was not being used pronouns,” Superintendent Laura Abel testified.
On Oct. 31, Vlaming was placed on paid administrative leave after West Point High School Principal Jon Hochman said Vlaming did not obey his directive to use the proper identity pronouns for the student (“he”, “him” etc.).
“An online petition supporting Vlaming, titled “Don’t terminate Mr. Vlaming,” states the student’s parents complained to the principal and Vlaming was asked to sign a paper stating he wouldn’t refer to the student as a female.
An investigation was launched by the Superintendent who moved forward with the recommendation to fire Vlaming.
Voyles said his client was sent a letter Nov. 6 by Abel stating: “My expectation is that you will treat [the student] the same as other male students, including using his preferred name and using male pronounces to refer to him. If you refuse to comply with this directive or if you have any further instances of using female pronouns or of avoiding the use of male pronouns to refer to [the student], it will be considered insubordination and will result in termination of your employment.”
Vlaming reportedly declined to fully comply with the school division’s demand.
"That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment," Abel testified.
"The policy speaks not one word about pronoun usage,” Voyles said. “There is absolutely nothing in the policy, as the witnesses admitted from the school division, that speaks to that issue. Which makes that policy so problematic that it leaves it up to the individual for interpretation."
In a statement following the board's decision, the Superintendent stated:
“The School Board has policies that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. As detailed during the course of the public hearing, Mr. Vlaming was recommended for termination due to this insubordination and repeated refusal to comply with directives made to him by multiple WPPS administrators. As superintendent, it is my responsibility to enforcement board policy, and due to Mr. Vlaming’s non-compliance I therefore recommended termination.”
The West Point School Board released the following statement on their decision:
"Thursday night, the School Board made a difficult decision after thoughtful consideration. It is the Board’s responsibility to adopt and uphold policy, and we unanimously voted to affirm the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Mr. Vlaming.
West Point Public Schools has the responsibility to ensure all students have a safe and supportive school environment where they can learn and thrive. We do not and cannot tolerate discrimination in any form, or actions that create a hostile environment for any member of our school family. Mr. Vlaming was asked repeatedly, over several weeks and by multiple administrators, to address a student by the pronouns with which this student identifies. The issue before us was not one mistaken slip of the tongue. Mr. Vlaming consistently refused to comply going forward -- including in a statement made at the hearing -- a willful violation of school board policy.
While we understand that some do not agree with our decision, we hope to have discussions that help West Point Public Schools move forward, maintain our focus on excellence and instruction, and make a positive impact on the lives of our community’s children."
Abel stated West Point Schools has followed and will continue to follow Virginia Code and all local policies and procedures relating to licensed staff members.
"This is a new issue in this country,” Voyles said. “These administrators had just two words, ‘gender identity’, that were added to their policies and they decided on their own what it means to discriminate against gender identity."
Voyles said he’s assessing his options on how to proceed including a possible appeal with the circuit court.
OTHER WITNESS TESTIMONY
On Thursday, Suzanne Aunspach, assistant principal of West Point High School, acknowledged meeting with the parents about their transgender child over the summer. They preferred teachers use their child’s new name and preferred identity pronouns.
Aunspach said in late October she talked with Vlaming and presented him with a legal brief saying he was in violation of Title IX by not using the preferred name and pronouns.
Jon Hochman, the principal of West Point High School, said he had a conversation with Vlaming about the use of pronouns when it came to that transgender student, following the virtual reality activity. He claims Vlaming went against his directive in using male pronouns.
Voyles called several witnesses including three students who attend West Point High; only one was in the same French class as the transgender student in question.
While there was a lot of support for Vlaming, another online petition, titled “Protect Trans Kids,” stated the student had been openly trans for the whole year and students were constantly correcting Vlaming.
“Trans people have to wake up every morning and hate themselves because they were born into a body they didn’t want, so the least everyone can do is respect their preferred names and pronouns,” the petition states. “In the end, this isn’t about a teacher. This is about a problem that has been going on for years.”
Voyles also objected to the board decision’s to hold the public hearing at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and only allowing 60 people inside the room.
“There were over 100 people in the hallway, waiting to get in, who were deprived of the right to come in and hear their dually elected representatives make a decision on a man’s livelihood.”
According to Vlaming’s staff biography, he is a native of Chicago and lived in France a total of 11 years where he worked and earned his theological degree. Vlaming lives with his family and four children (ages 1-10) in Williamsburg.