TR school board holds first reading on draft classroom display policy

Board member expresses concerns on Pride flag omission

THREE RIVERS — Three Rivers Community Schools could be one step away from enacting a new classroom display policy that would govern what can and cannot be displayed officially in the district’s classrooms.

TRCS’ Board of Education had a first reading Monday night of the draft policy, which lists out several displays that would be allowed in classes if implemented. However, one school board member expressed their concern during the meeting about one particular item that is currently not listed as something that can be displayed – Pride flags, the subject of the November 2021 controversy that led to the district wanting to enact policy on displays in the first place.

The draft policy, a recommendation by the district’s policy committee and the district’s policy advisors Neola, lists out several displays that would be allowed in classes, including flags of the United States, State of Michigan and Three Rivers High School, displays used in classrooms as part of units of study within the approved curriculum, displays that denote a recognition of achievement, Michigan High School Athletic Association displays, displays from colleges or universities, flags representing countries of foreign exchange students, and displays representing district-sponsored school organizations or clubs.

Board Secretary Ben Karle said he was concerned, given the previous national attention on the district regarding Pride flags following the controversy over their removal from middle school classrooms and eventual reinstatement last November, what would happen if the policy was enacted as is, without the flags being allowed.

“We happened to be national news as a result of this issue last year, and since that time it’s been going on in more and more districts, and there’s certainly a lot of lawsuits. Forget about that for a minute; it’s about, to me, a life-saving, life-affirming measure that that flag can literally save lives,” Karle said. “We know the statistics about LGBTQ+ students and suicidal ideation, self-harm, increased substance abuse and suicide attempts; it’s three times the amount of other students. I’m just urging us to re-think this again. With challenge comes opportunity. With the challenge last year, we have the opportunity to be a model, and a lot of people are watching us to see how we’re going to handle this.”

Trustee Linda Baker noted that the policy does not cover personal items of teachers, meaning that items such as clothing and pins that may have a Pride flag on it would still be allowed, and that it specifically mentions flags and other similar classroom displays.

“That’s sort of a big item that stands out; that seems like that’s the first thing you’d see if you come into any classroom, something like that, which is fine. But there’s many other things that could be deemed important and educational for the kids or something to cause some discussion, and obviously you can’t have a room filled with so much stuff you don’t have room for anybody else,” Baker said. “I think it’s not really so much prohibiting things as much as it seems on the surface, I think it may be organizing things a little bit better so that there is some opportunity for some wide range of opinions and knowledge.”

Karle said he recognizes that is the case, but also that the overall message that would be sent by not allowing Pride flags as classroom displays could have a negative connotation for some students.

“I know we talked before about staff members can wear a button or whatever, but I also get the message from the school is, ‘I can’t necessarily enforce what the employees are wearing, but we don’t support the flag,’ is kind of the message I take away from that,” Karle said. “I understand it’s kind of a step in that direction, but I don’t think that lives up to our mission of including all students.”

Karle added that he had received a letter recently from another district from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan regarding Pride flags in schools, and that lawsuits could be a possibility.

Baker responded, saying the people are “represented by the people that are in it,” and opined that it might mean more to the student if a teacher supported them on an individual level.

“If those folks may show these things to individual students, it might be even more valuable than just a general – not to say it’s not important, but it may be a more personal approach for a student that may be in crisis to know that a teacher standing in front of them is cognizant of their struggle, and worried about them, and that it’s safe to have a conversation with them,” Baker said. “I see what you mean, Ben, but I wonder if this would end up being better for individual contact when it’s sought.”

Board Vice President Melissa Bliss said the policy states the district is adopting a “content neutral” policy, and refuted the idea that the district doesn’t want to support the Pride flag.

“That’s not the message, I don’t believe, that this board has. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s not the message I want us to be sending,” Bliss said. “I think the idea is that we want to remain focused on the content that is owned by the district that remains neutral and in the sense that, what we’ve all said is that individuals can personalize in displays they can choose themselves. But we referenced things like company vehicles and things owned by different private business that you’re regulated on what you can and can’t do to those items that don’t belong to you. I feel like when we look at this draft before us, it does remain neutral in the sense we’re supporting things that align with our mission and vision; we’re not regulating what individuals are wearing or supporting. So, I hope that the message isn’t that we don’t support one another, but that we’re trying to stay neutral and control what is owned by the district.”

Karle disagreed, saying he understands it wasn’t the intent, reiterating his stance on what message the district would send by not allowing the Pride flag or similar flags in classrooms.

“I worry the message would be the opposite from the community and most importantly, from the kids that are watching this that, my identity and life was affirmed, but now my district does that,” Karle said. “I know that’s not our intent with the wording, but the message that we receive by even one kid is too important, from my lens, to look at this issue and the legal ground with which we have none to stand on should we prohibit flying a flag.

“This is an emotionally-charged issue for so many kids, and we want to get it right. It’s a tough position schools are being put into, and it’s not related just to us, but I think a lot of people are watching, and we have the opportunity to model inclusivity while also being aware of what our message is.”

A second reading of the draft policy is scheduled for the board’s next meeting on Monday, Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at the district offices, where it could be brought to a vote for adoption.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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