Fired school counselor: Lawsuit addresses issues of free speech, parental rights

·3 min read

May 23—ANDERSON — Kathy McCord's decision to file a federal lawsuit against the South Madison Community Schools Corp. was ultimately based on a belief that issues of student gender identity rights and parental authority and involvement are bigger than her job, she said Tuesday.

McCord, who was fired from her job as a counselor at Pendleton Heights High School in March, filed the suit last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.

Among the allegations in the filing are that South Madison violated her constitutional rights to free speech by firing her in retaliation for voicing disagreement with the district's gender support plan. The disclosure of that plan generated controversy among parents and residents in the district, which has an enrollment of approximately 4,400 students.

McCord told The Herald Bulletin that the plan, initially implemented in the fall of 2021, raised red flags with her immediately.

"I prayed about it a lot...and I went along with it at that time," McCord said. "But when it started back up in the fall of '22, I just felt like when that email came out, that God really reached out and said, this happened, now you've got to deal with it. I just didn't feel like it was something I could let go and not simply answer the questions.

"I just felt like I had to do more for this situation as it's unfolding across the country."

The email, which McCord sent last Aug. 16 to a group of teachers who had a student in their classes expressing a desire to be called by a different name, was leaked to a group of parents and later published in a story in the Daily Signal, a news website funded by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

McCord said that as backlash about the issue rippled through the community, she found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her religious beliefs on the topic with what she believed she was being asked to do: withhold pertinent information from parents concerning the education of their children.

"There are a lot of things that are presented to you as a counselor that you aren't always able to say what you'd like," she said. "I just feel like students need their parents involved in these difficult times that they're going through."

McCord is being represented in the lawsuit by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, a firm specializing in litigation involving Christian practices within public schools and in government. Her attorney framed the case as one focused on free speech rights as well as student privacy concerns.

"It speaks to any sort of cultural debate about the amount of free speech rights that teachers have...and what schools can do or can't do to retaliate against them when they exercise those free speech rights," said Vincent Wagner, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom. "It speaks to this conversation about involving parents in important decisions about their children."

South Madison was formally notified of the lawsuit late last week. A response from the district is expected within a month.

Superintendent Mark Hall said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.