Should a teacher be allowed to place a Black Lives Matter sticker on their desk to let students know they oppose racism, or hang a Pride flag from their door to let their LGBTQ students know the classroom is a safe space?
Or are those actions another way for teachers to politically influence and divide students?
Across the country in recent months, board members, administrators, and teachers have been at odds over the express purpose of Black Lives Matter logos and Pride flags and what free speech rights teachers have when it comes to decorating their classrooms.
Dozens of educators across the country have recently been asked and ordered to take down stickers, posters, banners, and flags containing those symbols, according to media reports.
One such district is Newberg, Ore., where a school community’s divided opinions on whether Pride flags and Black Lives Matter symbols are signs of support for historically marginalized students or political and inflammatory symbols has resulted in multiple lawsuits, a superintendent’s firing, protests, and, most recently, board member recall elections.
Elsewhere, districts in Indiana, Nevada, and Utah have all banned teachers from displaying the Pride flag or Black Lives Matter symbols, or both, in schools since November 2020.
In September 2020, a teacher in Texas was fired after she refused to stop wearing her Black Lives Matter face mask, CBS Austin reported.
Last fall, a teacher in Iowa was put on administrative leave after he included the Pride flag in a presentation about images that described him and told students — when asked — that he was bisexual, according to the Des Moines Register.
And in September 2021, a teacher in Missouri resigned after being forced to take down a Pride flag in his classroom and forced to sign a letter prohibiting him from discussing sexuality or sexual preference, according to USA Today.
In Newberg, the uproar started when school board members issued a directive at an August 2021 meeting ordering the superintendent to enforce removal of all Black Lives Matter and Pride flag posters, banners, stickers, pins, and clothing from school buildings.
A month later, the board scrapped the policy based on legal advice and passed a new iteration which banned all symbols that can be considered “political, quasi-political, or controversial.”
“We’ve hijacked a beautiful rainbow sticker into something different. It is political,” Newberg school board chair Dave Brown, who voted for the ban, said during a school board meeting last summer. “These things are dividing our schools.”
The district’s teachers’ union, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, has sued, calling the ban arbitrary, confusing and an infringement on teachers’ free speech. Andrew Gallagher, a high school history teacher and a plaintiff in the teachers’ union lawsuit, said that he believes the board members’ agenda is driven by a national movement to censor conversations about race and gender in the classroom.
The vagueness around the definitions of “controversial” and “political” have caused confusion among educators, Gallagher said.
“Who’s going to be the arbiter of what is considered controversial?” he said. “And it creates a chilling effect for our staff, which does impede on our free speech.”
At the August board meeting, several parents urged the board to reconsider the directive, but a few were in support of the ban on Black Lives Matter and Pride flags.
Newberg parent Raquel Peregrino de Britoa said LGBTQ propaganda causes gender dysphoria, BLM is designed to be divisive and schools should instead be about math and reading.
“There are only two genders and all lives matter,” she said during a school board meeting in August, according to a recording. “The BLM and LGBTQ ideology and curriculum are shattering the innocence of children, promoting racial divide, and negatively impacting the lives of our kids forever.”
Teachers’ free speech rights are limited
Generally speaking, teachers have few rights when it comes to free speech in the classroom, said, Richard Geisel, a lawyer and professor of educational leadership at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. A school board has the right to tell teachers what they can or can’t do if it’s trying to eliminate disruption to learning, assuming the board’s policies come from a neutral perspective, he said.
In Newberg’s case, the first policy the school board passed in August 2021 that specifically banned rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter symbols would likely have been “discriminatory,” Geisel said.
“If their policy just singles out certain viewpoints and is not generally applicable, that’s problematic,” he said.
Its newest policy that bans “political or controversial” symbols might be much harder to challenge, Geisel said.
“I think it’s pretty typical to go into a public school these days and find those symbols for those express purposes, of helping all students feel included and welcome,” Geisel said. “But to what extent are they both messages of inclusion, as well as potentially political statements? I don’t know the answer to that. It’s going to be interesting for the court to wrestle with that.”
A show of affirmation and support that leads to improved academic outcomes
For students of color and LGBTQ students, who disproportionately experience discrimination in school buildings, symbols such as a Black Lives Matter poster or a Pride flag can be useful tools for navigating their social and physical surroundings, according to Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the interim executive director of GLSEN, an LGBTQ awareness and inclusion advocacy group.
LGBTQ students experience stronger academic outcomes as well as more positive emotional and mental health outcomes when schools are inclusive and affirming, Willingham-Jaggers said.
“And it’s visible displays of support for LGBTQ students like Pride flags [that] are all critical components of creating a kind of welcoming environment that helps young people be successful in schools,” she said.
The Black Lives Matter hashtag is perceived by many educators to serve a similar function. It was created in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. The movement gained traction as Black Lives Matter became the rallying cry of protests against police brutality across the country that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“It’s really only controversial if you think that if you believe in white supremacy,” Willingham-Jaggers said. “If only white folks belong in our schools and only white folks need to be comfortable or have their identity affirmed, a Pride flag and BLM poster disrupts that comfort.”
A community fights over its own identity
The two symbols can become flashpoints in communities already divided.
Newberg’s school board, student activists and teachers has been at loggerheads over the last two years over how to fight racism and homophobia within the district.
The communty had already dealt with incidents including a white Newberg teacher who showed up to school in blackface and a student who posted racial slurs and homophobic comments to a Snapchat group called “Slave Trade.”
In 2020, Newberg passed two resolutions condemning racism and promising to make all students feel welcome. For the rest of the school year, teachers displayed rainbow flags or Black Lives Matter posters “without disruption to the education environment,” the Newberg Education Association lawsuit said.
As the 2021 school year began, however, four board members—two of them newly elected—pushed to ban Pride flags and Black Lives Matter symbols in Newberg schools. After two months of fierce debate between board members and the school community, the four board members passed the ban in a 4-3 vote and issued a directive to the superintendent to make sure all flags, banners, posters and stickers associated with Black Lives Matter and Pride were removed from Newberg schools.
Some community members organized rallies protesting the ban. They built plywood Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs and displayed them on a hill within view of Newberg High School. They continued voicing dissent at board meetings, but the ban stayed.
Some building leaders, such as District Mountainview principal Terry McElligot were already making changes in their buildings. The principal told a school counselor to take down the Pride flag in the counseling office, according to the lawsuit. The next day, at a staff meeting, the lawsuit said she told her employees “I don’t want any of you telling students it’s ok to be gay or trans.”
The district did not respond to requests for comment.
In September, Superintendent Joe Morelock informed the board, after consulting with the school attorney, that enforcing the ban would be unconstitutional. The board then rescinded the directive and issued a new policy, this time the blanket ban on anything “political, quasi-political or controversial,” without offering much explanation as to what that might entail.
Two months later, Morelock was fired. Many in the Newberg community protested again. The teachers union filed its lawsuit, and a recall effort for the chair and vice chair of the board was initiated. Both board members did not respond to requests for comment.
Currently, the town is the site of prolonged protests by those who believe the values represented by the Black Lives Matter posters and Pride flags have a place in Newberg.
Some teachers still hang those flags on their classroom doors, according to Brandy Penner, a board member who has spoken out against the ban since the first board discussion.
Local business owners display these symbols in their businesses to show their solidarity to Black, brown and LGBTQ students and teachers.
But as the fate of both the ACLU and the teachers association lawsuits remains uncertain, the ban on political symbols stays.
“It has now transcended this cultural war of pride and BLM to be more like, no, but who are we as a community?” Penner said. “It is asinine to think you can suppress people to a point where they will no longer be able to express their Pride.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Pride Flags and Black Lives Matter Signs in the Classroom: Supportive Symbols or Propaganda?