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‘What’s next?’ Mon students and others protest the district-mandated removal of Pride flags and other trappings from classrooms

High school can be bad enough on a good day — and for Aaron Reedy, there were no good days back then.

In fact, it was all he could do to make it through the main hallway, he told members of the Monongalia County Board of Education on Tuesday night.

“I was relentlessly bullied,” said the student, who is now a senior at Morgantown High School.

“Why? Because I was different. Because I was a transgender, gay man living in rural, southern West Virginia.”

His family moved north, and in the third period of his first day at MHS last year, he walked into a classroom to find a seat when it happened.

He saw a Gay Pride flag on a bulletin board, and suddenly, a wave of then-unfamiliar emotion washed over him.

“I finally felt accepted and safe,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the flags were removed at the school on Wilson Avenue.

So were other articles deemed influencing — especially, say, a poster or other materials for any political candidate of choice.

It wasn’t an MHS rule.

It was a Monongalia County Schools rule, and it came in the form of a letter, generated Sept. 8 by the central office, and sent to every principal in the system.

The letter, in part:

“ … The upcoming election season is quickly approaching. While you may be tempted to engage in conversations with staff, families and students about the related topics, you may not realize the communication could be unacceptable within our school system.

Please keep in mind the intended and unintended influence you have on students and the school community when conversations veer outside of the professional relationship.

As public educators and administrators, our first priority is always the safety of our students – physically, mentally and emotionally.

In order to provide the entrusted care, inclusiveness, and educational content that families expect, we must remain objective when interacting with them by directing our attention and conversations towards our expertise relevant to their student.

Opportunities to interact with students and families are privileges which carry a great responsibility, and obligation, to keep our personal opinions, values, and all expressions of activism, no matter how small, regardless of the subject matter, [emphasis, the school district] limited to interactions outside the classroom and school system.

This includes any time either party is on MCS’ Board of Education owned or used property before, during and after school hours …”

Ideas are OK

Donna Talerico, Mon’s deputy superintendent of schools, said classroom should be a place for discourse — not indoctrination.

“It’s not an appropriate place for teachers to express personal political views because of the upcoming election season,” she said.

“We’re not going to turn our classrooms over to the political arena,” the deputy continued. “Students need to have the ability to think for themselves.”

For Reedy and the 15 or so other Morgantown High students who addressed the board as members of the LBGTQ+ community, however, it wasn’t politics to them.

It was personal survival.

Not everyone who took the microphone is attending Morgantown High. One was an area minister now working for the ACLU.

Some were parents whose children came out as teenagers.

Another is gay rights activist who almost committed suicide because of bullying over her orientation.

A friendly teacher with a Gay Pride accessory in her classroom talked her down, she told the BOE.

“That Rainbow Pride sticker saved my life,” she said.

A worry for the next round

Morgantown High Principal Paul Mihalko, meanwhile, echoed the school district when it he said it was a matter of policy, and nothing more.

“I appreciate that our kids went to that meeting and spoke eloquently,” he said.

Which, for him, was the point all along, he said.

“It’s our job to teach them how to think, not think for them. You know the times we’re living in.”

Does he ever, Reedy said after the meeting.

While diversity and interactions with different people are wonderful things, said Reedy, who wants to start a nonprofit for people on their own transgender journeys — so is the relief and joy in learning that you aren’t the only one of your kind after all.

“You take the Pride flag,” he asked, “and what’s next?”

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