After a photo of a substitute teacher at East Ridge Elementary School circulated on social media this week, raising concerns with the school district, the teacher says those concerns were based on misconceptions.
The photo, which shows teacher Ezra Fry standing in a school hallway wearing a long dress and dyed pink hair, was posted with a caption suggesting Fry asked children to call them "Mrs."
The image was also shared in videos on Instagram, in which influencers and commenters speculated that Fry was a transgender woman and argued they should not be allowed in schools. Fry said claims they are a transgender woman are false and they asked students to call them "Ezra" to prevent confusion.
"I'm a non-binary person, and I keep my gender out of my job," they said in a phone interview Thursday. "Obviously this whole thing has blown up because people think I am."
Hamilton County Schools received several calls and emails in response to the photo, spokesperson Steve Doremus said in an email Monday. The district issued a statement Monday saying its schools "should be safe, welcoming and inclusive spaces for all" without distractions.
"This includes an expectation that adults who interact with our students present a professional appearance that does not cause distraction," Doremus said in the statement. "Following this morning's situation, we have had conversations with our substitute vendor, Education Staffing Solutions, to reiterate our expectations for the appearance of adults in our schools going forward."
Fry said they were found not to have violated any school or substitute agency policies about appearance, after a meeting with representatives from the district and the staffing agency.
"I don't see how an instructor can ever be a distraction, considering they are instructing the classroom," Fry said.
The agency requires substitutes to dress professionally, Fry said, and to follow the guidelines of the schools they're placed in if they are more strict than the agency's. A copy of staff policies provided by the district says staff must wear "appropriate dress for work" and comply with local school rules. The policies also say staff members have the right to "a work environment free from sexual, racial, ethnic and religious discrimination/harassment."
Monday, the day the photo was taken and posted online, was Fry's first day working at East Ridge Elementary, they said.
On Tuesday, they were told by the staffing agency that it was requested they not return to the school, though it's unclear who made that decision. As of Thursday, Fry had received a new assignment from the staffing agency at a different school in the area.
School officials declined to discuss details of meetings held with Fry and the agency on the matter and said there are "no restrictions on assignments" for Fry, according to Doremus.
"I had spoken to the principal on that day about the situation, explained to him how I had approached everything with the kids, explained to him that there had been minimal questions, minimal distractions," Fry said.
The students, Fry said, didn't seem to care about what their substitute wanted to be called, an issue raised by some on social media. Fry primarily uses they/them pronouns but allows students to call them by any pronouns, they said.
"Everyone just kind of assumed," they said, "and everybody has agreed on the wrong thing."
Fry said they have stayed away from most of the discussion on social media but heard about it from friends and co-workers. They don't know who took the photo inside the school but said school officials indicated they would look into it.
"Yes, parents have a right to know who's teaching their students," Fry said. "But teachers do not have the right to photograph other teachers and children in school."