TR school board tables classroom display policy

District teachers submit guideline suggestion; legal counsel to review

THREE RIVERS — A hot-button issue at Three Rivers schools will not be decided just yet.

On Monday, in an unexpected move, the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education tabled a vote on a flags and display policy for district classrooms, due to the need to review a potential additional guideline for the policy suggested recently by district teachers.

Superintendent Nikki Nash said the suggestion by teachers was to include “displays used to stimulate curiosity and appreciation of the world and aesthetics, or to celebrate children’s outcomes, efforts and achievements as determined by the building principals” on the list of allowed displays in classrooms. The teachers’ reasoning for including the language, Nash said, was because of concerns that as the current draft policy is written, “there would be nothing on display” in classrooms.

“For example, if you go into classrooms, and they have a positive quote, or if there’s posters, if you go in the library, about ‘Read’ and encouraging them to read, they’re afraid to put too many limits on that,” Nash said. “The way they feel it reads, it does read that way.”

Currently, the draft policy being considered by the school board would allow the following displays and flags in classrooms:

  • The United States flag,
  • The State of Michigan flag,
  • The Three Rivers High School flag,
  • Displays used in the classroom as part of a temporary unit of study within the approved curriculum and approved by building principals,
  • Displays that denote a recognition of achievement and are approved by the superintendent,
  • Michigan High School Athletic Association or other similar sport tournament displays recognizing the participation of or accomplishments of a school team and/or athlete,
  • Displays from colleges or universities,
  • Flags representing countries of foreign exchange students, and
  • Displays representing district-sponsored school organizations or clubs.

Nash said she was hoping to get official word from Thrun Law Firm, the district’s legal counsel, on whether or not the proposed additional guideline would not violate anything legally, but she did not hear back from them before Monday’s meeting, despite an assurance for a follow-up before the end of the day Monday.

If the addition is made, Board President Erin Nowak recommended bringing the draft policy back for another first reading and discussion. Monday’s tabled discussion would’ve been the second reading of the original draft policy and possible approval.

Board members were comfortable with waiting and seeing what Thrun has to say before making a decision.

“I’d be fine with waiting to see what Thrun has to say, if we need to clarify it and spell it out a bit better,” Board Vice President Melissa Bliss said. “If there’s substantive changes, I would think we would discuss it at committee level again and bring it back for possible first reading, and if not, we’ll bring it back for a second.”

“I would agree, if there’s a recommendation to pause and reflect on that and get some legal advice, I would be more comfortable waiting until we got all of that information,” Board Secretary Ben Karle said.

The vote to table was unanimous by the board.

Following the decision, members of the public gave their appreciation to the board for tabling the policy, while also mainly advocating for Pride flags to be allowed in classrooms. Beth Geisinger said it’s important for kids who identify as LGBTQ+ “know they have a safe place to go to,” and that suicide is the leading cause of death among children ages 10-14 in the state, with LGBTQ+ children at higher risk. She also commented on the initial parent complaint that led to the Pride flag controversy in the school district last November.

“It was said in the last meeting that of all the rooms, there were three [rooms with Pride flags], so I’m not sure who raised the fuss about teachers who were being more than welcoming to students, but that is concerning that there are a handful of people that are strong arming the school board,” Geisinger said. “I don’t know that they’re going to get you to do the right thing, but they’re going to get you to do what they want you to do, which is not in the best interest of my kids, and probably not in the best interest of your kids.”

Andrew George, in his comments, said he wasn’t expecting the policy to be tabled, while also commenting on some of the comments made by board members at their Monday, Oct. 17 meeting, where the policy was discussed in detail for the first time. In particular, he mentioned comments made by Bliss that the policy in its current draft form was “neutral,” pushing back on that assertion, and saying if the board adopted it, they were not being neutral. He also “guaranteed” that if the policy is approved as is, the district would face a lawsuit.

“There’s two sides to this, there’s one side saying, ‘take the Pride flags down,’ and there’s one side saying, ‘don’t take the Pride flags down.’ If you take the Pride flags down, you just took a side, did you not? That’s not being neutral,” George said. “We can say all sorts of stuff that we disagree on. At what point, like, if I’m in favor of doing something heinous and you’re not in favor of it, there’s not two sides to the coin, I’m just wrong. That’s what’s going on here. You guys are going to be on the wrong side of history if you adopt what you have in front of you right now.”

The district is considering the classroom display policy in response to a controversy that occurred in November 2021 where a directive was issued and later reversed to remove Pride flags from Three Rivers Middle School classrooms due to a parent complaint. The reversal came after strong backlash by students and community members at a December 2021 board meeting, where Nowak said the board would look into a policy. The saga received national attention, with a middle school teacher resigning in the wake of the original decision.

The board’s next meeting is set for Monday, Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. at the district’s administration building.

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

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