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School district fired counselor for confirming students’ gender identity hid from parents: suit

South Madison Community School Corp. claimed Kathy McCord lied because journalist used "imprecise language" in report credited to multiple sources. Rationale for termination not consistent.

Published: May 19, 2023 11:10pm

An Indiana school district has fired a counselor after she confirmed to a journalist that it was keeping parents in the dark about their children's self-asserted gender identities at school, according to a First Amendment lawsuit file Thursday.

The suit seeks the reinstatement of counselor Kathy McCord as well as back pay, damages and exempting her from the district's "gender support plan" policy.

The South Madison Community School Corporation falsely attributed Daily Signal reporting to solely to McCord, despite investigative columnist Tony Kinnett saying he relied on "at least three [other] local sources" for the December 2022 report on the district's policy of withholding gender transitions from parents, the suit states.

The policy is unconstitutional as applied to McCord because it "forces her to choose" between violating her Christian beliefs about sex, children's mental health and parental rights "and losing her job." It also violates the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, she alleges. 

The district could find less restrictive means of honoring students with gender identities at odds with their sex, such as by letting McCord address them with "nicknames" or transferring them to a different counselor, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom complaint.

Indiana prohibited the practice of hiding gender transitions from parents in a bill signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) two weeks ago, though South Madison Superintendent Mark Hall implied in an email to a parent obtained by Kinnett that it doesn't apply to gender support plans.

South Madison did not respond to Just the News queries on the litigation. It previously ignored a request in January to confirm McCord had been placed on indefinite leave and was facing termination as reported by Kinnett, a former Indiana educator who claimed he was punished for accusing his district of covertly teaching critical race theory and backing his allegations with the district's public materials.

McCord's district quietly adopted the policy in August 2021 without school board debate or posting the gender support plan form on its website, the suit claims. Teachers are required to follow the forms, which document a student's preferred names and pronouns and whether to notify their parents, but don't have direct access to them.

Supervisors told McCord she'd be fired if she resisted the policy, leading her to explicitly rebuff a mother who told McCord not to "socially transition" her son, McCord claims. She only spoke openly more than a year later – as a "private citizen about a matter of public concern" – when Kinnett approached McCord with materials he already obtained.

They included a blank form and McCord's redacted email to teachers that was "circulating in the community" about a specific student's plan and directions not to inform the parents. McCord cooperated because she realized the email "taken out of context" would imply she supported the policy. 

The Dec. 5, 2022, report quoted McCord saying that she and a few other counselors opposed the policy; ex-teacher Amanda Keegan, who said teachers never saw the forms but were asked by counselors to hide students' gender identities from parents; and another counselor who claimed Assistant Superintendent Andrew Kruer told counselors the policy was "board-approved." 

Kinnett said the form itself came from another anonymous source and that the "document history" showed it was last edited by Kruer.

The revelations put the district on the defensive with parents, and a contentious board meeting – also reported by Kinnett and local media – confirmed that district policies "require implementation" of gender support plans and that the form isn't on the website.

A week later, South Madison "began the process" of firing McCord, with officials grilling her Dec. 16, 2022, and Jan. 3 about her interactions with Kinnett.

They confronted her about downloading a gender support plan the night of her interview with Kinnett, but McCord said he had already shown her his copy and that timestamps show she downloaded the form after he left her house.

A draft termination recommendation letter dated Jan. 18 gave her "just one school day to try to smoothly transition her assigned students to another counselor" before she was placed on leave, putting their education at risk, the suit claims. 

The letter accused her of violating board policy by "providing statements known to be false or made without truth or accuracy" that "resulted in severe, unwarranted reputational damage to the school corporation," and lying about Kinnett's access to the form.

The district credited McCord with five supposedly false statements made by Kinnett that actually just used "imprecise language to describe certain details" of the policy, gender support plans and "job descriptions" including Kruer's, McCord alleges. 

It has never claimed she "violated any policy by confirming the accuracy of the copy" Kinnett showed her, which Kinnett reported March 9 he had independently obtained from "both parents and staff members in the district."

The board fired McCord two days after a public meeting in which Superintendent Hall questioned employees about the policy "and gave a narrative, evidentiary statement himself, without being questioned," while she was prevented from doing the same. At that meeting, district employees verified reported details of the policy and McCord's internally stated objections, the suit claims.

Kinnett's March 9 report says the "factual basis” termination sheet given to reporters at the meeting, which cited untruthfulness and "gross insubordination," differed from the explanations given by board members Bucks Evans, who cited document "falsification" and new school board member Mike Hanna.

Unlike other medical and counseling documents, "no official copy of template" of the gender support plan form has been publicly posted by the district, Kinnett reported. Just the News couldn't find such a document either.

Hall and Hanna declined to comment on the suit, the Anderson Herald Bulletin reported.

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