The display of the pride flag continues to be debated in RPS, Minnesota schools

Mar. 31—ROCHESTER — As

state lawmakers contemplate a bill that would prohibit the banning of pride flags in classrooms,

the issue continues to be the source of contention in Rochester Public Schools.

During a recent school board meeting, Braxton Barton spoke with the Rochester School Board about the use of the pride flag when he was attending RPS' Right Fit Program. He went on to describe the teacher's response when he asked why the room didn't have an American flag.

"She said 'This represents America,' she said, 'This represents you. This represents the world. This represents Christianity,'" Barton said. "I told her 'That's not what I believe.' I said, 'There's a difference between this flag and America ... not everyone believes the same thing. Not everyone is on the same agenda.'"

The pride flag has been an issue of public debate for years in RPS — not just the display of it, but also the very proactive support the district's administration has shown for it.

In 2021, Rochester Public Schools approved a resolution that designated a number of issues as "government speech," which included references to minority groups including, among others, Black Lives Matter and the pride flag.

In part, the resolution reads:

"We adopt the display of the six-colored (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet) rainbow pattern and flag, also referred to as the 'pride flag,' as government speech supporting a message of inclusion within Rochester Public Schools."

The district's legal representative at the time said the resolution was a way for the district to allow pride flags, among other messages, while not being obligated to allow other types of messaging.

"On this issue, it is the government itself that is speaking," the district's attorney, John Edison, said at the time. "So you don't have the same issue about people coming forward and saying by expressing a certain message that you have to allow others to be expressed, too. That concept does not apply when you're talking about government speech."

The district's policy on "government speech"

opened a controversy about government overreach and infringement of the First Amendment.

In tandem with heated controversy about the district's COVID policy, the resolution prompted

dozens of people to attend a meeting of the Rochester school board to protest the board's action.

The argument also went beyond the board room. Shortly thereafter, former

Olmsted County Republican Party Chairman Bruce Kaskubar wrote a letter to the editor

in the Post Bulletin about the board's decision.

"The fact they were trying to find a way around the First Amendment in order to reserve authority for their own preferred speech is unconstitutional," Kaskubar wrote. "Literally un-American."

The display of pride flags in the city's schools has continued to be contentious ever since. Last year, former school board candidate John Whelan spoke during a school board meeting to mark the two-year anniversary of what he described as an illegitimate action by the school district.

RPS is not the only district that has tried to walk a line between allowing visual support for one viewpoint without opening the door to any and all kinds of messaging. In 2022,

a Byron teacher went to the district's school board

in an effort to allow the display of the Ukrainian flag. At the time, Byron Superintendent Mike Neubeck said they were waiting to hear from their legal counsel about the issue.

He said the district was hesitant to allow the display of the Ukrainian flag because if the district opened the door to the display of one flag, they also would have to allow all messages to be displayed.

The issue of the pride flag in schools has even risen to the attention of state lawmakers. A bill has been working its way through the Legislature that would prohibit schools from banning the display of it.

The issue doesn't directly speak to the situation in Rochester — it prohibits the banning of the flag and doesn't address the proactive protective stance RPS took to the situation.

"The bill does not require anyone to display rainbows, nor does it supersede policies that prohibit the display of all banners, flags or posters," bill author Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, said, as quoted by Minnesota Public Radio. "It just prohibits rainbows from being singled out and banned in schools, libraries and other government spaces."

The bill comes off the heels of another school having a debate over flags being displayed in classrooms.

Last year in Worthington, a high school teacher was asked to remove two flags in his classroom, one was the flag of Puerto Rico and the other a pride flag.

Worthington Superintendent John Landgaard told the Post Bulletin last year that flags are allowed in classrooms as long as they're tied to the curriculum and have an educational purpose in mind. Neither of the flags met that standard.

"Education is a neutral (place)," he said. "Educators are required to be neutral on sensitive, political topics."

At that time, he said the district was considering a policy to address the flag issue.

Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said earlier this month that he felt the bill needed more work because "it does infringe on some of those areas that we uphold for education to be independent of political activities."

As of March 29, the bill is still listed as "introduced."