‘Political Speech’ in the Classroom: Pride Flags & ‘Safe Space’ Stickers?

OMAHA — Some local parents and students consider a pride flag or “safe space” stickers displayed in a handful of Omaha suburban high school classrooms as inappropriately political.

But these symbols aren’t political to local LGBTQ students. To them, these handheld flags, stickers and supportive posters help them feel accepted and safe.

That is why a first-year Millard North High School principal’s meeting with teachers last month and discussion of the district’s ban on political posters and items is causing a stir.

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Students say they feel unsafe

Students like senior Jayden Randels and junior Scar Connor noticed the flags and stickers coming down and felt less welcome at school, both told the Nebraska Examiner this week.

Millard North senior Jayden Randels. (Submitted photo)
Millard North senior Jayden Randels. (Submitted photo)

Randels said he noticed that one of his favorite teachers had a blank spot on a classroom wall where a 2-inch by 2-inch human rights and equality flag used to be.

He relayed that the teacher, whom he did not identify, told him that teachers had been asked to remove the flags and stickers and didn’t give much detail. He noticed similar symbols coming down in other classes.

Randels and Connor said people who haven’t been discriminated against because of who they are don’t understand the value of tokens of visual support.

“They give me the peace of mind to know that, at least within that classroom, I have a safe space and an adult who I can trust and talk to about issues that might be going on,” Randels said.

Meeting with the principal

Connor said she heard about the principal’s meeting with staff and spoke to at least three teachers about it. She said they came away from the meeting with the same impression.

Some staffers believed that they could no longer post pride flags or safe space stickers or risk breaking the district’s years-old ban on political items, the teachers union confirmed.

Millard North junior Scar Connor. (Submitted photo)
Millard North junior Scar Connor. (Submitted photo)
The students said one teacher was told an item had to be taken down.

Connor spoke with the principal, Aaron Bearinger, on Thursday. She spoke with him after getting sent to the office for putting up posters around the school that were critical of him.

The posters urged those who read them to ask the principal why he did not support LGBTQ+ kids. Connor said Bearinger seemed upset about being labeled that way. She said she chafed when he asked her if he should allow someone to put up NRA stickers.

Conner said she disagreed with the comparison. Straight kids don’t have the same risk of suicide and are bullied less often than LGBTQ kids, she said.

Academic research shows LGBTQ young people have contemplated suicide in higher numbers than straight peers and miss more school from fears of being bullied.

Connor said Bearinger told her that pride flags were allowed in the school. Connor and her mother said the principal had drawn a line at safe space stickers and human rights posters with the names of advocacy groups on them, saying district policy did not allow them in classrooms.

The principal, according to Connor, asked her to consider a student who has other beliefs and feels uncomfortable talking to a teacher with a “safe space” sticker up.

Bearinger, reached this week through a district spokeswoman, said he did not recall specifics about his discussion with the student about the “safe space” stickers.

District response

Millard Public Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman confirmed Thursday that the district has “no policies preventing flags, stickers or other symbols.”

She said what happened at Millard North may have been a misunderstanding. The district has a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There was a conversation at Millard North with faculty — and these are conversations at all of our schools — and I think that was misinterpreted,” Kleeman said.

Millard does not allow teachers to bring items tied to politics or advocacy organizations into the classroom unless otherwise directly related to district-approved curriculum, she said.

But teachers with pride flags and student-supportive stickers can put something up like that in their classrooms as long as they cover or remove any advocacy group names.

She recommended that teachers observe the district’s process for seeking approval for classroom posters and reach out to their administrators if they have a question about the rules.

Teachers, senator respond

Tim Royers, president of the Millard Education Association, said the union is trying to figure out what happened at Millard North. He said the union would defend teachers’ rights to support all of their students.

Parents and students upset with the flags and stickers being pulled down reached out to State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. She met Thursday with Millard district superintendent John Schwartz.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)
State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

She came away with the impression that the district is trying to convey that they aren’t bad people, when what she and others want is to know when kids can get back their visual support.

For Hunt, the issue is personal. She said she remembers being told she couldn’t go to prom in high school with a girl, that if they wanted to go together it had to be as a group.

She said she got angry at hearing from someone who reached out that the principal had conflated LGBTQ advocacy with the NRA and asked whether he should accept a Satanic Club. She said a district representative apologized.

Hunt said she wanted Millard leaders to understand that backing LGBTQ kids is not taking sides. LGBTQ kids are as politically diverse as any, with liberals, conservatives and more.

“It’s really not that complex,” Hunt said. “Some kids feel vulnerable. Some kids feel unsafe, and there are teachers in the schools who make them feel a little safer, for that one period every day they don’t have to worry about being bullied or judged.”

All kids are welcome

Mike Kennedy, a conservative member of the Millard school board, said he and Millard leaders want all students to feel welcome, and that’s why he said the district tries to avoid politics.

Millard Board of Education member Mike Kennedy. (Courtesy of Millard Public Schools)
Millard Board of Education member Mike Kennedy. (Courtesy of Millard Public Schools)

Because of increased political tension locally and nationally, he said, Millard has charted a middle path away from the politics of the day. He said their focus is academics.

“I love all of our students …,” he said. “What we are trying to make sure is that the district is not giving a seal of approval to any viewpoint or political persuasion.”

He and other conservatives have seen the pushes in other red states to re-emphasize bans on political items in classrooms, including some specifically targeting LGBTQ symbols.

Millard, he said, is trying to find a way to be respectful of students and parents on all sides of the political aisle, and he said the board is hopeful the principal can find a way forward.

District officials said Bearinger met with students who expressed concerns and talked to their families. They said the principal has a “safe space” sticker on his own office window.

The principal answered the Examiner’s questions with a statement: “Millard is home. I have been a part of this school for nearly two decades, and care deeply about the students and staff.

“If a young person says they are upset, that is a conversation I take very seriously. I am and will continue to work to make sure everyone who is a part of our school feels heard and knows they are welcome.”

Related: A Rural Teacher Challenges Students and Her Community to Wrestle With the World

Why symbols matter

Jay Irwin, director of Women’s and Gender Studies and a professor of sociology at UNO, said flags and stickers are important for LGBTQ student feelings of safety and comfort.

“For a young person to see such messages tells them they are not alone, they are valid, and that they matter,” he said.

Connor, who identified herself as a member of the LGBTQ community at Millard North, said she knows students for whom school is the only place they can be themselves.

She, Randels and Hunt reject the idea that supporting people for who they are is somehow political speech. They say it shouldn’t be considered political, but instead an issue of human rights.

“They’re missing the fact that they could really be impacting queer students’ mental health with this,” she said. “It disrupted my happiness and focus on learning.”

Connor’s mother, Aasta Connor, said she came away from talking to the principal thinking the school is trying to satisfy some people upset by the flags instead of focusing on the kids.

“I just want them to make it right and allow teachers to show support for the queer community,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if somebody agrees. It’s not a group you choose to be in.

“You just are.”

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