Stonington – A group of residents are criticizing a decision by principal Mary Anne Butler to remove Pride flags from the school system’s classrooms.
Although the issue was not on the agenda at last Thursday’s Education Committee meeting, it was discussed after two residents confronted the board about the decision to remove the rainbow-colored flag representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride ) symbolizes and social movements.
Some parents and residents, including 43rd House District Democratic nominee Ashley Gillece, have now called on the school board to hold a special meeting to discuss the issue.
Pawcatuck’s William Heughins told the board at last week’s meeting that he strongly disagreed with the decision to remove the flags and didn’t understand how it could be seen as political.
“We are an inclusive school in an inclusive community – at least I hope we are – and doing that only sets us back. It’s really disappointing. I really don’t understand how a few people can push the agenda,” he said.
Butler said in an email on Monday that the issue arose when a parent expressed concern about a Pride flag in a classroom, claiming it violated the district’s policy on political material in classrooms.
The policy prohibits the showing or distribution of political material during school hours, unless used for educational purposes, and also requires that materials be presented in an unbiased, objective manner that is age-appropriate for students.
Butler explained: “However, other people have expressed that Pride flags are not political, but rather a symbol intended to promote acceptance and inclusion. The district has obtained a legal opinion on this matter and is currently following that interpretation.”
In addition, she said, “In response to parents’ concerns, the administration has reviewed the circumstances and, in cooperation with the teacher and site manager, made fact-based decisions regarding the display of materials in a particular room.”
She said that since the initial concern was raised, “a few additional situations have arisen and each is being dealt with individually between the teacher and the building manager. All of this took place in secondary school and in the classroom.”
She declined to answer questions about the number of complaints received, how many teachers were affected by the flag-removal order, whether or not anything was sent to parents on the subject and whether a lawyer had provided a written legal opinion on the matter .
The Day has made a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of any written legal opinions the District has received on the flags.
Pride flags and LGBTQIA+ symbols in classrooms have been increasingly banned in districts nationwide as school systems grapple with the divisive issue. Various media reports attribute the problem to fears of legal action over a form of political speech.
In April, Southington responded to the problem by banning the flying of flags other than the city, state, military, and American flags, and in June a group of students walked out of Farmington High School to protest the school’s refusal who have favourited to raise the Pride Flag.
Stonington Education Committee Chair Farouk Rajab said on Monday: “The way this was handled was something the Superintendent made a decision about and she made a decision based on guidance she received from Board policies and other legal advice.”
He added: “We need the teachers union, the administration and the board committee to meet and review this and find the right answer and the answer is our priority is the safety of our children, their education and the safety of ours That’s why we want to protect the freedom of expression of all children and employees while providing a neutral environment for children to learn. That is our priority.”
Board Member Sarah Baker raised the issue at last week’s meeting, saying: “Having a Pride flag in our schools can be a very small but powerful way to signal support for all of our students. I don’t see this as pushing any particular agenda other than the agenda to support all of our students.”
When reached on Tuesday, Baker said a meeting between the teachers’ union and three members of the Education Committee was scheduled for Wednesday evening. The meeting is not public as it does not include a quorum or an established school board.
“In my opinion what we are discussing is a matter of dignity and how do we ensure that everyone who comes into our schools, in the work that they are doing and in the space that they are in, treated in a dignified environment,” she said.
Baker also said that from her experience in higher education, showing pride flags “does not fall under the category of political statements because we understand that when they are placed in the classroom, they serve to signal inclusion, to encourage acceptance.” signal, signal respect, and be able to communicate that non-verbal message, and especially the message of safety.”
Asked if she was aware of how many teachers will be affected by the decision and which schools the teachers work in, she said: “It hasn’t been brought to our attention but I think that’s going to be the issue – probably where we are starting our discussion tomorrow is about getting a feel for numbers, impact and so on.”
Tearfully, Rachel O’Dell, from Pawcatuck, told the board last week of a child who had been bullied during his school days, starting at the age of five, and was told to kill himself in sixth grade by some of his peers. She said he was proud of himself when he went to Stonington High School and joined the Alliance for Acceptance Club.
She concluded her statement by saying, “No matter who we love, no matter how we dress and how we look, we are all beautiful people and I hope every parent in every city realizes that they don’t want their child in this one.” Position – where they have to decide whether they want to choose life or death.”
Gillece released a statement on her Facebook page for her campaign on Sunday, which read in part: “Over the past 24 hours I have received numerous emails regarding the removal of Pride flags from our schools in Stonington. First and foremost, as a parent, I understand the frustrations I hear on so many levels. Most importantly, we must now acknowledge the mental health crisis that continues to grow among youth, particularly in the LGBT community.”
She continued: “Secondly, as a parent, I agree that many of us would have attended a meeting if we had had the opportunity to discuss this issue if it had been an agenda item and believe that this is now and not should happen in November. Every day that passes, parents will continue to be frustrated and unable to advocate for their children.”
A joint statement by State Senator Heather Somers, R-Groton, Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington and Republican nominee for the 41st House District Robert Boris, posted by Somers on Howard’s Facebook page for the campaign on Tuesday, read: “As elected officials and candidates for office, we do not believe that the Pride Flag is a political speech. Rather, like most of our community, we recognize that it is merely a symbol of inclusion in our school community. We understand the school administration’s position given our current climate, but we are confident that the Stonington School Administration team is committed to making all students feel welcome at their school. We have pledged our support to the administration, teachers, social workers, students and parents to find a solution that works to make everyone feel welcome at the Stonington Schools.”
Stonington Education Association President Mike Freeman did not respond to requests for comment.