PENDLETON — Officials at South Madison Community Schools have created an uproar after three teachers at Pendleton Heights High School were ordered on Tuesday to remove LGBT pride flags from their classrooms.
The rainbow flags were ordered removed from the classrooms of Spanish, French and art teachers because district officials said they violate the “political paraphernalia” policy.
Pendleton Heights Principal Connie Rickert said the school prides itself on creating a welcoming environment for all. She said the district celebrates students and does not tolerate harassment or discrimination based on any protected class, which includes LGBT students.
“Teachers are legally obligated to maintain viewpoint neutrality during their official duties to ensure all students can focus on learning and we can maintain educational activities and school operations,” she said. “Our counselors are trained to respond to any student who desires support.”
South Madison Board of Trustees President Bill Hutton went further with an emailed statement sent to students, parents and staff.
“The issue with displaying the flag in a school is a double-edged sword,” he said. “If an LGBTQ+ flag is allowed to be displayed, then any other group would have the same ability. That could include such flags as supporting white supremacy, which is in direct conflict with LGBTQ+. I hope we can model equality and support through our actions.”
However, LGBT students, including Tai Wills, disagree that the flags are political.
“Why would you compare a racist flag?” Wills said. “Those two have nothing to do with each other.”
Student Bryce Axel-Adams, for instance, has started a Change.org petition to present at the district’s board meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday. By mid-afternoon Wednesday, it reached the 2,500 signatures sought.
Wills, 16, who identifies as LGBT, said the hanging of an LGBT pride flag can’t be reasonably compared to the hanging of a symbol of white supremacy.
“One is about inclusiveness and the other is about hate and exclusion, and I don’t think that’s the same thing at all,” the sophomore said.
Wills said she worries about the mental health and educational success of her classmates. South Madison’s schools during the 2018-19 school year had a rash of suicides and suicide attempts at all grade levels, some of which did involve LGBT students.
“It’s already hard dealing with bullying and judgmental kids, and now you can’t even have a flag saying, ‘We support you in the classroom,’” she said.
Though she is able to identify only six LGBT students at Pendleton Heights, Wills said she believes there are many more who fear coming out because of the reactions of their parents or harassment by their peers.
“I know there are a lot who aren’t out because they don’t feel safe,” she said. “My friend last year was bullied and harassed by the same guy.”
The flags had hung in the classrooms since last school year, Wills said.
“They had them up all year last year, but I don’t know why it’s just now being a problem,” she said.
Though her own family is supportive, Wills said, many of her LGBT classmates aren’t as lucky.
“A lot of my friends, a lot of my peers don’t have that safe space,” she said. “When they see that flag, it is a sign of hope.”
In reality, Wills said, Pendleton Heights has not been supportive of its LGBT students. For instance, last year she started the Gay-Straight Alliance but was told they could not post fliers and raise money like the other clubs.
“Their only excuse was, ‘It’s a sensitive topic,’” she said. “It didn’t really feel like we were a club because we weren’t allowed to do much.”
Missy Darr, who is a step-parent to an LGBT student at Pendleton Heights, said she learned about the directive from one of the teachers affected, who came forward on a social media page.
“I’m trying to see it from both sides,” she said. “But the problem is the school is seeing this as a political issue. This is my child’s life. They were born this way — frankly, the same way I was. I myself am pansexual.”
Darr, who said she will be meeting with Rickert about the matter on Thursday, said supporting LGBT causes is not political because these people are born that way and can’t change what they are.
“You aren’t born a white supremacist. You aren’t born QAnon,” she said. “However, I was born American. I was born pansexual. I was born white.”