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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Swedish watchdog closes two Islamic schools for radicalising pupils

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate has revoked the permits for two Islamic free schools in Uppsala and Stockholm, after the country's security services warned pupils were at risk of radicalization.

Swedish watchdog closes two Islamic schools for radicalising pupils

On Thursday, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate announced that it had revoked approvals for the Imanskolan Foundation and the Framstegsskolan Foundation, based on warnings from Sweden’s Säpo security police. 

Säpo had complained about both the management at the schools and the learning environment, judging the school leadership unsuitable to conduct school activities.

According to Säpo, students of the schools are at risk of exposure to extreme Islamist ideology.

“Säpo have assessed that children risk being exposed to radicalization by staying in an environment that advocates creating enclaves in society instead of respect for human rights and basic democratic values,” The inspectorate wrote. 

The announcement of the closures comes just months after a proposal for stricter controls on religious free schools.

In February, Schools Minister Lina Axelsson Kihlblom stated that while a ban on new religious free schools would not be put forward, stricter controls would be established through the introduction of a  “democracy clause” or demokrativillkor.

“The proposed law will create clearer requirements and stricter rules for confessional [religious] preschools, schools, and after-school clubs,” said Axelsson Kihlbom.

More than 200 students at the Imamskolan primary school in Uppsala will be forced to change schools for the autumn term. At Framstegsskolan in Stockholm, about 90 students are affected by the shutdown. 

The decision, which may be appealed, currently applies from 15 and 17 August 2022.

by Kirstie Hall