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Kiel School Board closes Title IX investigation over wrong pronouns that prompted threats of violence

'Trans and gender-diverse kids are not being political, they're being politicized,' says UW-Madison professor

Students walk through the halls in a high school.
In this Aug. 29, 2013 photo, students walk through the halls during an open house for incoming freshman and transfer students at a high school in Philadelphia. Matt Slocum/AP Photo

The Kiel School District has closed its Title IX sexual harassment investigation into three eighth grade students who allegedly used the wrong pronouns when addressing another student who uses they/them pronouns.

Kiel’s school board released a statement Thursday, saying it “issued clear directives and expectations to all students involved in this matter for the purpose of preventing bullying and harassment and ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment for all of our students.”

News of the investigation went public in mid-May, after parents of the three boys hired a conservative law firm to represent their children. After that, the school and several local institutions — the library, city hall, roads and utility companies — as well as district employees’ homes, received bomb threats. A California man was arrested for threatening to kill a school district staff member.

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In response to that backlash, the city canceled its annual Memorial Day parade, and students will finish their school year virtually.

The statement released after a closed-session meeting on Thursday evening addressed the violent response the district received after news of the investigation became public.

“As we move forward, we want to acknowledge the strain on our administrators and staff who have been criticized for simply carrying out the functions of their job as set out in District policy.”

The Kiel Police Department said on Facebook that it is continuing to track down and investigate leads about the threats, and it is working with federal authorities to prepare for any future threats in response to the district’s investigation.

The backlash to the Kiel school district’s investigation is part of a pattern in Wisconsin and around the nation of lawsuits tied to LGBTQ+ students rights. Trans kids have seen efforts to restrict access to puberty blockers, and around the state small but vocal groups of parents have worked to ban books from school libraries that touch on LGBTQ+ themes.

“When even a little bit of support is provided, or attention is provided, that there is such a backlash is a reminder to us of what trans and gender-diverse kids are facing every day in this country,” said LB Klein, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in Title IX and LGBTQ+ health. “Folks are acting out in violence about basic names, pronouns and terms, and that’s politicized — trans and gender-diverse kids are not being political, they’re being politicized.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group, issued a letter to the district in support of the three students being investigated in May. The group contends that the school district violated the students’ First Amendment right to free speech, and that using pronouns other than the ones a student prefers is not sexual harassment under Title IX.

Title IX guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2016 specifically prohibits discrimination against transgender students — and while that was rescinded during the Trump administration, guidance from the Biden administration in June 2021 reestablished those protections.

“I think that there’s often an idea that the rights of students who are trans and nonbinary end where other people have a problem with the affirmation of those trans or gender-diverse students,” said Klein. “I don’t think we have these conversations when it’s not about trans and gender-diverse kids — I know a lot of people, as a parent, who have kids that go by names other than the names on their government documents, and people don’t bat an eye about that.”

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