Will gay pride and other flags be limited in Kennewick schools? Here’s what happened

The Kennewick School Board shot down a controversial policy amendment that would have restricted how flags can be displayed in classrooms.

It would have placed restrictions on the size, height, location or number of non-U.S. flags that are displayed “on a full-time basis” in schools.

The proposal had previously passed 4-1 on first reading at a December meeting. It came back last week for final approval, but was failed on a 3-2 vote.

Board president Michael Connors and board member Ron Mabry flipped their votes between the first and final readings of the policy because they felt the policy needed more work.

The original goal of revising the district’s flag policy was to give teachers clear direction on how to display flags that aren’t the American or Washington state flags, but Connors said the policy did the exact opposite.

“We didn’t make it better. We made it convoluted. We made it difficult to enforce. We made it a mess,” he said. “Nothing in this policy furthers our academic goals — nothing. So, to go down this road, to me, doesn’t make any sense.

“People can call me un-American, call me unpatriotic, I can only imagine what everyone’s going to say about all this. The bottom line is we’re not making this policy better in my mind,” he said.

Mabry told the Tri-City Herald in an email that he thought the policy was clear, but needed further work.

“As a board, we have the responsibility to listen and consider what the other board members think and share,” he wrote. “Other members of the board stated that the policy was not clear and failed to improve the policy that is presently in place, therefore I feel that we have more work to do. There is no gain if we only add confusion to what we are trying to accomplish.”

Instead, the board unanimously updated the American flag policy later in the meeting to reflect changes in the law.

Board policy now requires for the U.S. and state flag to be “prominently installed, displayed and maintained in all schools,” and every classroom must have an American flag in “good condition.”

The vote caps off a few months of hotly contested debate, during which dozens of students, parents and community members weighed in on whether or not Kennewick schools should allow flags that are political in nature.

Some said the proposal placed a direct target on teachers who hang gay pride flags in their classrooms.

Washington state law currently exists for how schools should display the U.S. and state flag in classrooms, but there are no laws regarding other flags.

Students and teachers don’t shed their First Amendment rights when they walk into the classroom. But because teachers are generally considered to speak for the school district when teaching, limits have been placed on what teachers can say, according to the Washington ACLU.

And that also includes classroom displays, such as flags.

“Because schools have the authority to control what happens in the classroom, courts have allowed school districts to require teachers to remove in-class banners and display conveying religious message. It is likely that the school could require you to remove political signs from the classroom,” the Washington ACLU says.

But some specific restrictions have been found to be unconstitutional.

Last year, a judge in Yamhill County, Ore., ruled that policy passed by Newberg School Board members that would have banned Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ pride flags, and other political symbols, went against Oregon’s state constitution.

‘Tolerance and acceptance’

Kennewick’s proposed new policy would effect how teachers and district staff could display “flags other than the United States flag in schools on a full-time basis.”

Restrictions proposed included:

  • No flag larger than the United States flag may be displayed.

  • No flag may be hung higher than the American flag.

  • No more than one copy of the same flag may be displayed.

  • Flags may not be used to cover a window.

The proposal also defines a flag as “a piece of material, usually rectangular, of distinctive color and design, used as a symbol, standard, signal or emblem.”

“I don’t see what we’re doing,” Connors said. “We’re leaning towards teaching our kids to be intolerant. Going out in the world, all these kids are going to face stuff they don’t like — that’s just reality. We have to find a way to teach tolerance and acceptance, whether you like it or not. That’s reality.”

Board Member Gabe Galbraith cited a recent survey conducted with nearly 1,400 students from Kamiakin and Kennewick high schools.

The results showed that 72% of students felt political signage was not appropriate in school environments. About one-third of respondents felt social movement signs were not appropriate, and roughly 1% (about 14 responses) wrote-in that pride flags were not appropriate.

“I think, at this point, this has been over 90 days (that) we’ve been going down this road. We need to vote and move on from this policy because it’s just continued to divide those in the community. So, it’s time to make a decision as a board and move on and go on from there,” Galbraith said.

Board Member Micah Valentine disagreed that the policy would breed intolerance. He said it promotes the American flag and puts it at the center stage, and it didn’t restrict any specific types of flags from being hung in classrooms.

“It’s not suppressing, it’s not removing, it’s not banning. But what it does is — the language specifically props up the American flag that we all live under,” Valentine said.

Student flag survey

After considering a survey done by Richland students about political flags, Kennewick conducted a survey of its own.

The results were presented at the Jan. 25 school board meeting by student board representative London Moody.

The survey was sent out to all Kennewick School District high schools, but nearly all the responses — about 96% — came from Kamiakin and Kennewick high schools.

Here are those results, out of 1,359 responses:

“What types of signage (flags, posters and displays) do you believe are appropriate in school environments (select all that apply)?”

  • Sports (89%)

  • College (89%)

  • International (state, countries, nations) (78%)

  • Curriculum (69%)

  • Extracurricular activities (69%)

  • Social movements (47%)

  • Political expression (18%)

  • Write-in: Pride flags (1%)

“What types of signage do you believe are not appropriate in school environments? “

  • Political expression (72%)

  • Social movements (35%)

  • Extracurricular activities (9%)

  • Curriculum (7%)

  • International (state, countries, nations) (7%)

  • Sports (3.5%)

  • College (3%)

  • Write-in: None (2%)

  • Write-in: Pride flags (1%)

  • Write-in: Confederate flags (0.1%)

The superintendent’s Student Advisory Council also reviewed the policy as it was written in January.

Students brought up concerns about limiting certain types of speech, but said they didn’t want flags with hate speech. Some said teachers should have the right to decorate their classrooms as they want, and said the policy shouldn’t apply to college flags.

Some also compared the pride flag to religious symbols. Others said schools should be neutral grounds, or said it was about adults making their classroom a safe space.

“People see this as all or nothing,” one response read. “You either need to allow everything or you shouldn’t. You can’t limit personal expression for one thing, then not another.”