Exeter High School Athletic District Bill Ball said the school respects all students.
But the attorney for an Exeter student who was punished for expressing his opinions about gender said the school needs to respect the rule of law.
During the bench trial in Rockingham Superior Court, Ball and Assistant Exeter High School Principal Marcy Dovholuk explained why they punished a Catholic student for what was a private text sent outside of school.
The football coach benched the freshman student for one game in 2021 over a discussion he had with a classmate. He is seeking $1 in damages. He also wants Ball to admit wrongdoing. The student insists he was punished for defending his view that there are only two genders, male and female.
His attorney, Richard Lehmann, told NHJournal Exeter is another example of New Hampshire school districts running roughshod over anyone who disagrees with the new, extreme gender mores.
“It’s bad enough that children are made to feel uncomfortable expressing traditional views on matters related to gender in school,” Lehmann said. “Or when schools announce they will lie to parents about their children’s in-school gender expression, as Manchester, Exeter, and other schools do. But it’s made even worse when schools reach beyond their gates and into children’s private lives and seek to control their behavior at home or in private communications with other kids that happen entirely outside of any context related to the school,” Lehmann said.
Lehamann’s client, John Doe, is using a pseudonym to protect his identity. He has since left Exeter and is enrolled at a Catholic high school. Doe testified he was talking with friends on a bus after school about another student who claimed to be “non-binary” during Spanish class. Doe testified he thought that odd since the Spanish language relies on feminine and masculine genders.
The non-binary student was not involved or aware, of the conversation at the time.
Instead, a female classmate who was not part of the conversation later confronted Doe, insisting that humans come in more than two genders. Doe and this female student then got into a heated conversation, with Doe arguing the mainstream stance that there are two sexes. Doe based this view on both science and his religious beliefs.
The girl texted him later that evening to continue the argument. At one point, Doe told the girl to “STFU,” which he testified was an attempt to be funny.
The next day, Doe was called in by Dovholuk and informed he would be punished for the conversation he had the night before over text. Dovholuk claimed the punishment was for bullying and bad language and not Doe’s beliefs regarding gender.
“At Exeter, we respect people, and we respect how they identify,” Dovholuk reportedly said.
Ball testified he told Doe, “We respect all.”
Lehmann said the United States Supreme Court already ruled that schools cannot punish students for things they say off campus. In June 2021, the High Court ruled against a Pennsylvania high school that suspended cheerleader Brandi Levy for using the f-word in a social media video about the cheer team.
“Three months before the facts of this case arose, the United States Supreme Court dismissed an athletic sanction imposed by a coach because the authority of the athletic department to penalize students for engaging in free speech could only extend to off-campus, non-school activities in rare circumstances,” Lehmann said.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts cannot police students’ speech when they are not in school.
“From the student speaker’s perspective, regulations of off-campus speech, when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, include all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day. That means courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech, for doing so may mean the student cannot engage in that kind of speech at all,” the justices wrote.
The Doe case is now being considered by Judge Andrew Schulman, who is expected to render a verdict in the coming weeks. Doe is doing well at his new school, Lehmann said.
“He is a great kid from a terrific family, and Exeter High School is a lesser place because of his absence.”