A former Lincoln Public Schools custodian who was fired at the start of this year has filed a charge with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission over alleged sex discrimination. Michelle Howard states that she was harassed and discriminated against for being a transgender woman, resulting in the abrupt termination of her 17 year career with LPS.
Ms. Howard began working for LPS in 2005, most recently as a custodian. Over the last several years of her employment, her colleagues became aware of her gender identity and transition. Even after legally changing her name, colleagues refused to properly address her and continued to use her dead name. She was not allowed to use the women’s restroom, even though she worked third shift, when no students or other staff were in the building. Eventually, Ms. Howard was called into a meeting with her direct supervisor and his boss, in which they informed her that her employment had been terminated “due to poor performance and recent disciplinary write ups.” When she stated that she was unaware of being written up, she was informed that her supervisor had done so the day she was terminated. She was not given a reason for the write-up.
These are troubling allegations at any time, but even more concerning in the context of larger trends in education: Nebraska public schools, like others around the nation, have faced staffing shortages that directly impact their ability to serve students. Just at the start of this school year, the Lincoln Journal Star reported on staffing issues, stating that “hiring of classified staff — bus drivers, paraeducators, nutrition services workers, custodians — has been even more of a challenge. As of Friday, about 32% of openings were still unfilled.” With fewer current employees and applicants than in previous years, the grounds for firing Ms. Howard are even more questionable. Lincoln Public Schools was already in the headlines this year for discrimination, as a former bus driver claims she was denied accommodations, placed on leave, and ultimately fired because she was pregnant.
There have also been concentrated efforts against transgender students by our local politicians and organized groups, and these reflect national trends. Ms. Howard’s experience with being denied access to an appropriate restroom mirrors the ongoing debate about whether or not transgender students should be allowed to use restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. While right-wing fear-mongering tries to claim that cisgender female students are at risk with “men” (an intentionally inaccurate description of trans girls) in these spaces, the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that transgender students are the ones at heightened risk in schools with restrictive restroom and locker room policies. Families of transgender students cannot reasonably expect their children to be supported in a school district that allows for discrimination against transgender staff. Staff who do not conform to gender or other social norms have more reason to fear for their jobs. Ms. Howard’s story is important on its own, but it reflects larger issues in our school system’s priorities.