Teaching Profession

Should Teachers Be Able to Wear Safety Pins as a Message of Solidarity in Class?

By Madeline Will — November 23, 2016 3 min read
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After the election of Donald Trump, people across the country donned safety pins as a show of support for people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and other marginalized groups. The pins, which are meant to signify a link, are a response to the spike in bullying and attacks on people from those groups since the election.

Some teachers, concerned about the vulnerability of some of their students in this post-election time, are wearing safety pins in the classroom. But some administrators have found the message to be politically charged and thus, unacceptable in their schools.

The Shawnee Mission district, which is in the Kansas City, Kan., metro area, issued a statement on Monday forbidding teachers and other staff members from wearing safety pins at school.

“Although wearing the safety pin as political speech is not the problem, any disruption that the political statement causes in the classroom or school is a distraction in the education process,” the statement reads. “We ask staff members to refrain from wearing safety pins or other symbols of divisive and partisan political speech while on duty—unless such activity is specifically in conjunction with district curriculum.”

The ban sparked outrage among educators, and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Kansas chapter immediately received “dozens of complaints.” On Tuesday, Micah W. Kubic, the executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, wrote an open letter to the Shawnee district condemning the ban.

“The school district’s current policy sends students a clear signal that not all students are valued or safe at school, undermines attempts to build community, and is vulnerable to a legal challenge,” Kubic wrote.

While a public school district is within its rights to prohibit teachers and other employees from wearing partisan and political symbols, Kubic said, the safety pins are not meant to be political—they’re simply a signal that the wearer will create a “physical and emotional safe space for all people.”

“It should not be controversial to say that the success and safety of all students, including members of vulnerable groups, are important,” he wrote. “The district’s policy censoring teachers from making that statement, by wearing safety pins, suggests that the district does indeed believe it is ‘political’ or ‘controversial’ to say that the safety and success of all students is important. That sends a clear signal to students, parents, and members of the community that the district’s leadership does not regard the safety and success of all students as important.”

Symbolic speech, Kubic said, is protected in public schools under the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case, the court ruled that unless symbolic speech was disruptive or would interfere with the operations of the school, it was constitutionally protected.

The Shawnee Mission Post reported that the district’s ban was made after the superintendent received complaints about the safety pins. But dozens of district parents have since called on the district to reconsider its ban, the paper found. As of Wednesday morning, the school district has yet to respond to the controversy.

Last week, in a town near Sacramento, Calif., an Oakmont High School photography teacher was reprimanded after she provided safety pins to her students. According to the Sacramento Bee, the teacher, Danielle Michel, said she did not encourage students to wear the safety pins, but some students and parents saw it as an anti-Trump gesture and complained. The Oakmont principal instructed Michel to stop distributing the pins in class, and warned other teachers that they cannot share their personal political views in class.

Educators have long wrestled with knowing how much of their own personal beliefs to bring into the classroom, especially when the issue is controversial or related (even tangentially) to politics. Just last month, hundreds of Seattle teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school as a show of support for their black students. As my colleague, Kate Stoltzfus, wrote then, educators must navigate the line between personal activism, support for all students, and a varying spectrum of beliefs from parents, students, and administrators.

Source: Image by Flickr user Valentine Svensson, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.