Swedish ombudsman slams school after teacher refuses to use student’s gender-neutral pronoun

UPDATED: A school has been urged by Sweden's discrimination watchdog to pay 150,000 kronor in damages to a student after a teacher refused to call them by their correct pronouns for months.

Swedish ombudsman slams school after teacher refuses to use student's gender-neutral pronoun
File photo of school lockers. Photo: Andreas Hillergren/TT

A teacher at a school in central Sweden refused to refer to a non-binary student with the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun “hen” for at least one semester, despite the student’s guardians informing both the teacher and a teaching assistant of the student’s correct pronouns.

The teacher stated that she could not use the word “hen” in speech, after which the student’s guardians informed the headteacher of the student’s gender identity and the teacher’s refusal to call the student by the correct pronouns. Despite the headteacher promising to speak to the teacher, the student was called by the wrong pronouns for at least one full school term.

Hen is Sweden’s gender-neutral personal pronoun, which means it replaces hon (she) and/or han (he) when referring to a person of non-binary gender, or in a context where their gender is unknown or irrelevant.

It’s used in the same way as hon and han in contexts where the speaker or writer would otherwise need an alternative phrasing such as hon eller han or kunden/studenten (the customer/student). An English-language equivalent is single-person “they”, and there’s an even closer equivalent in Finnish: hän, which has been used in this way since the 16th century and even features in the earliest printed book in the language.

Now, the Equality Ombudsman (DO) has investigated the case, and determined that the student was subject to discrimination, requesting that the educational provider pay 150,000 kronor in damages. If it declines to do so, DO said it would take the matter to court.

The educational provider told DO that the student was discriminated against and that the situation went on for too long.

In Sweden, the educational provider – the individual or organisation in charge of running the school – is considered legally responsible for discriminatory actions carried out by a representatitve of the school, such as a teacher.

An educational provider who finds out that a student believes that they have been subject to harassment must investigate the incident as soon as possible and take appropriate mesasures to stop harassment from re-occuring in the future.

“A situation where a teacher consciously refuses to use the pronouns a student identifies with represents a serious form of harrassment and something a headteacher must put a stop to. In school, all students should feel safe and respected and not be subject to discrimination. It’s especially important that teachers reflect these values,” Isabelle Arsova from DO said in a press statement.

The teacher who repeatedly refused to use the student’s pronouns was later fired by the school.

Edited to clarify that the matter has not yet been to court.

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Racist attacks against Afro-Swedes ‘most common hate crime in Sweden’

Six out of ten hate crimes against Afro-Swedes reported in Sweden involve verbal assaults or threats, often involving the n-word, insults about skin colour or origin, and dehumanising expressions, such as comparing the victim to a monkey, a survey by the Swedish Council on Crime Prevention has found.

Racist attacks against Afro-Swedes 'most common hate crime in Sweden'

The survey, Afrophobic hate crimes (Swedish), is based on an analysis of 430 reports of hate crimes against Afro-Swedes, as well as 16 in-depth interviews with victims, and was carried out as part of the last government’s 2016 Action Plan Against Racism. 

Lisa Wallin, one of the two investigators who carried out the survey, said that Afro-Swedes who were victims of hate crimes reported that they had had a significant impact on them. 

“Those interviewed described the consequences of the crime both in the short and the long term, and both for the individual and for society more broadly,” she said in a press release

She said that Afro-Swedes’ vulnerability to hate crimes contributed to “resignation and a feeling of exclusion”. 

The fact that hate crimes are often unpredictable and occur in many different contexts can also lead to a state of constant readiness,” she said. 

The most common place where hate crimes against Afro-Swedes occur is on the streets and in public transport, but there are also frequent attacks in schools or work places, near to people’s homes and on the internet. 

Although verbal assaults were most common, one fifth of the reported attacks (18 percent) were violent assaults, which is a higher rate than for Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, or other xenophobic hate crimes. 

Only two percent of the crimes were discrimination, with those mostly about people being refused entry to nightclubs. 

More than three-quarters of the reported perpetrators and six out of ten of the victims are men, but women often face a combination of racist and mysogynistic abuse. According to the researchers insults combining the n-word with the word hora, meaning a prostitute, are common.

Young people are particularly at risk of abuse. Four out of ten of those reporting that they have been subject to violent racist attacks were under 18, the youngest was seven, and the oldest was only 51. 

Several of the interviewees said that they had faced serious long-term consequences from the abuse, such as depression and being off work sick, while others spoke of a sense of alienation. 

The interviewees also described Afro-Swedes’ low level of confidence in Sweden’s criminal justice system, and particularly in the police, who they claimed tend to assume that black people were potential suspects rather than crime victims. 

“The police reports we analysed showed that the rate at which crimes are solved is low when it comes to hate crimes against Afro-Swedes, something which is the case generally when it comes to hate crimes as they are often crimes which are hard to investigate,” the report reads. 

Interviewees said they were aware that reporting hate crimes to the police seldom ends in the perpetrator being found guilty, which the investigators suggested might indicate that significantly more hate crimes are committed against Afro-Swedes than are ever reported.