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Matters of Pride: Mon BOE discusses a divisive move

When is a sticker a statement?

When does “protection” turn into “oppression”?

And just how much power can a Gay Pride flag wield, now that we’re talking about it?

That’s what it boiled down to after all the marathon talk during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Monongalia County Board of Education.

In many ways, this meeting was a replay of the Sept. 13 session.

Just on a larger scale.

More than 100 people rallied in the parking lot of the school district’s central offices in Sabraton and close to 40 others spoke during the public comment portion of the proceedings inside.

As with the meeting two weeks ago, people were there to mostly protest the district’s decision to call for the removal of Gay Pride flags — and other materials that might be deemed political or inciting in nature — from classrooms across the county.

Here’s a portion of a letter to that effect generated by Superintendent Eddie Campbell Jr. to school administrators on Sept. 8:

“ … 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.

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, limited to interactions outside the classroom and school system.”

The idea, in part, Campbell said, was to tamp down the rhetoric in a divisive political year. No indoctrination, he said, even if unintended.

Anything that smacks of that above-mentioned personal activism should go, he said.

The decision, he said, was borne out by repeated consultations with an outside legal counsel retained by the district to address such sociopolitical quandaries.

Teachers are talking

However, the faculty of Mon’s three public high schools — Morgantown, University and Clay-Battelle — drafted letters to the district asking for a reversal of the decision.

Students who are members of the LBGTQ+ community also spoke before the board, asking the same, as did a number of parents whose children are also gay.

For them, it’s not politics. It’s personal.

And, personal survival in the shark tank, they said, which is the main hallway of any high school.

A Pride flag on bulletin board or door, they said, meant that particular classroom was OK and that particular teacher occupying it was tolerant and understanding.

Others, though, said having Pride flags displayed in the first place came to politics and pandering.

If a flag belongs in the classroom, a handful of commenters said, it should be the American flag, which, they asserted, covers everyone anyway.

BOE members Jennifer Hagerty and Dan Berry, who are both retired teachers in the district, said if a Pride flag makes a student feel safe, it should be there.

“And I’d like to see a report from that counsel,” Hagerty said, referring to Campbell’s talks with the legal firm not associated with the district.

Many who spoke cited the same statistic in that regard, reporting that 55% of LBGTQ+ students simply don’t feel safe in their schools because of their orientation.

In the meantime, what happens to freedom of expression then, Berry wondered aloud — along with the idea of school as a place of discourse where ideas and expressions can be part of the air, without worry?

“I think we’re going down a slippery slope,” he said.

Mike Kelly and Nancy Walker, both longtime BOE incumbents, spoke a bit to the emotion cloaked in those statistics.

If you’re bullied, go to a sympathetic teacher, Kelly said. Your school is full of them. “They’re gonna be there for you,” he said.

“I wish we could teach people to be kind,” Walker said.

And there is a difference, the superintendent said, between what goes on a classroom wall opposed to the lapel pin or sticker on a travel mug or laptop computer.

One is freedom of expression, guaranteed by the First Amendment, Campbell said.

Positive commentary

Either way, both he and BOE President Ron Lytle agreed that 55% of students being scared in school is a disturbing statistic.

“I don’t want our kids feeling that way,” the superintendent said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Echoing Walker, Lytle said students feel that way because they’re being made to feel that way — even with the Pride flags in place.

Both Morgantown High and University High have diversity committees in place, though, specifically for the emotional health and well-being of students, and Lytle said he wants to see more of them at BOE meetings.

“We need to have them down here so we can talk to them and ask them some things,” he said.

Addressing the students who spoke at the meeting, Lytle assured them the BOE is their biggest ally.

“The effort is just starting,” he said.

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