FOREST, Va. — Sunnie Kahle, 8, likes to keep her hair short, wear boys’ clothes, collect hunting knives and shoot her BB gun.
“She’s a pure, 100 percent tomboy,” said her great-grandfather Carroll Thompson, who along with his wife, Doris, adopted their granddaughter’s child.
But to Timberlake Christian School (TCS) administrators, the second-grader’s ways warranted an ultimatum: Start acting like a girl or find another school.
The Thompsons found another school, but they didn’t go quietly. After being told by lawyers that they have no grounds for a lawsuit because Timberlake is a private school, the Thompsons have gone public with their complaints.
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“I don’t see nothing Christian about it,” Carroll Thompson, 66, said in an interview at the family’s house just outside Lynchburg, home of Liberty University, the Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Doris Thompson, 69, said she was stunned when she received a letter last month saying the school can deny enrollment to applicants for condoning “sexual immorality,” homosexuality or alternative gender identity.
Principal Becky Bowman wrote that “we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.”
Doris Thompson said Sunnie knows she is a girl and has never, to her knowledge, wished she were a boy.
Other disputes over gender expression at school have made headlines recently, including a demand, later rescinded, that a 9-year-old North Carolina boy cease carrying a My Little Pony backpack to school. But that case and others involved public schools rather than private religious academies that are not subject to anti-discrimination laws.
After a television news report about the Thompsons created a social-media frenzy, the school retained the legal arm of Liberty University to tell its side. Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said there is more to the situation than the Thompsons are saying.
“This is not at all about how she is dressing or she is going through a phase,” Staver said in a telephone interview.
However, he said confidentiality laws prevented him from being more specific and school officials would rather not try to rebut the Thompsons’ accusations. Earl Prince, an administrator at the school, also declined to discuss what prompted Bowman’s letter.
Doris Thompson said she is unaware of anything, other than Sunnie’s appearance and tomboy ways, that would prompt the school’s action. She said Sunnie made good grades, was well-behaved and got along with the other children.
New classmates would sometimes ask if she were a boy or a girl, but she would answer and that would be the end of it, Thompson said.
Bowman acknowledged in her letter that the school’s position doesn’t stem from Sunnie’s grades or “general cooperation with school rules.”
Staver said school officials were dismayed that the Thompsons chose not to resolve the issue with them privately. He said school officials would like to have Sunnie back.
“The school has never called the girl immoral, has never evicted her and is willing to work with her,” Staver said. “She is a precious little girl.”
This year, a girl mistook Sunnie for a boy in the girls’ restroom and reported it to a teacher, and two boys tried to drag Sunnie into the boys’ restroom. Sunnie said the boys got in trouble, but she did, too, “for yelling down the hallway.”
Sunnie, eager to break away from an interview and ride her bike, said she liked Timberlake better than the public school she is now attending.
“I had a lot of friends there,” she said of the school she had attended since age 3.
Doris Thompson said Sunnie would grow her hair so she could return to Timberlake, but her husband said that’s “out of the question.”
Sunnie’s troubles at Timberlake began in prekindergarten after she cut her hair to donate it to a program that provides wigs for cancer patients, Doris Thompson said. Around then, she started wanting boys clothes.
“A teacher told me I was the parent and I needed to control her, and if she didn’t obey I needed to take her in the bathroom and whip her butt,” Thompson said.
Rather than just dismiss the teacher’s concerns, she asked the family doctor for advice.
“He said, ‘Leave that child alone!’ ” she said.
Afterward, Thompson said the teacher told her: “You need to find a Christian doctor.”