Carroll County parent Sarah Lau held back tears as she watched dozens of protesters line up outside the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday in Westminster. The protestors were there to support the display of rainbow pride flags inside public school buildings.
“It’s beautiful,” said Lau, who recalled being bullied as a gay student in the school system. “I was doing this 20 years ago because I hoped this generation would not have to do this; it’s heartbreaking to me, but I’m glad to see the support.”
More than 100 protesters held signs outside the meeting and shared similar sentiments. The group included students, parents, teachers and representatives of community organizations.
They said they believe banning the display of pride flags could have dire mental health consequences for LGBTQ+ students, who are seeking signs of acceptance.
The crowd arrived shortly after 3 p.m., Wednesday, waving rainbow flags and holding signs with slogans such as, “We support LGBTQ+ students,” “We will Not Hide Our PRIDE” and “Student Voices Matter.”
The student-led Carroll County Kids for Equity organized the protest to coincide with the 5 p.m. school board meeting, where members were scheduled to discuss a new flag policy for the school system. The meeting included a public comment session that was delayed until about 7:30 p.m.
During the rally, Carroll County Kids for Equity members were jubilant about the turnout. Student advocate Diana Flores said the purpose of the demonstration was to show the school board that students’ voices matter.
On April 13, school board members raised concerns about pride flags displayed inside school buildings. They said the flags were political symbols and displaying them in schools goes against a recently revised political neutrality policy of the school system. That policy requires employees to “remain neutral on political issues, parties, and candidates during classroom instruction” and avoid discussing such issues unless they are “aligned with the approved curriculum.”
The school system’s political neutrality policy was written and approved in 1990 and revised in 2008. The most recent revisions were proposed in July and approved in January.
The discussion April 13 was in reaction to the distribution of rainbow flags to every public school on April 8 by parent Stephanie Brown. The flags were paid for by the Westminster chapter of the nonprofit PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. At the meeting, school board members asked staff to draft a policy that would ban political flags from being displayed inside schools.
Since the board’s action, sexual orientation, gender equity and inclusion have been debated by Carroll County parents and local organizations.
During the public comment period Wednesday, at least 25 participants addressed the flag debate and were divided on the topic.
When Flores stepped up to speak, many LGBTQ+ supporters stood with her in unison.
“You do not get to tell me that you believe that a piece of cloth is inappropriate, you do not get to sit there and tell us that you support all students, but then you say all of our identities are political,” Flores said. “While you’re talking about flags, we’re talking about saving lives. Denying the problem doesn’t mean it isn’t a reality for the rest of us in this room. Hear us, listen to your students, and support our voices.”
Steve Whisler, a candidate for Carroll County Board of Education, applauded the students who came to protest, but said he was in favor of the proposed flag policy.
“Our schools should welcome every student no matter their background or preference,” Whisler said. “While a flag may make some feel welcome and affirm their lifestyle choice, that same flag may [make] others feel uncomfortable, and it conflicts with their lifestyle choices, and it even puts pressure on our staff that just want to teach their craft.”
The school board discussed the draft flag policy and addressed public comment later in the meeting.
Ed O’Meally, legal counsel for the board, opened the discussion with an explanation of the draft policy, which he called “inclusive.” The policy allows the U.S flag, Maryland flag, Carroll County flag, and any flag/banner representing sports teams, countries, achievements or a topic of study within the approved curriculum.
“There is nothing in this draft policy that says anything about students,” O’Meally said. “It only concerns what the school system will display [around] the schools.”
Devanshi Mistry, student representative on the school board, disagreed with O’Meally’s assessment of the policy.
“This policy has a very intended and direct effect,” Mistry said, “and ... being transparent with the community, we really need to really call it what it is — this is a ban on pride flags in Carroll County public schools. While we don’t exclusively mention pride flags in this policy, we have to understand this is the original cause of this policy.”
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said the policy is not needed.
“If you want to have an inviting place [and] a safe spot for students to come in the school to learn throughout the day, I think this is a step in the wrong direction,” Frazier said.
School board member Tara Battaglia disagreed with Frazier.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Frazier, this opens the door for an organization to donate pro-life flags with dead babies on them like, ‘Here you go, put them in your school’ or ‘Let’s go Brandon’ flags or whatever flag is out there that belongs to whichever organization and any time they can donate and put in the school … and at some point where does it stop?” Battaglia said.
Superintendent Steven Lockard agreed with Frazier.
“We’ve seen pride flags in our schools for well more than a decade. I don’t think we need to have a flag policy. I understand and certainly am respectful of the board, but I want it to be known that I believe in supporting the students who we hear telling us that they need our support,” Lockard said. “I’m not a voting member but I cannot support that.”
School board member Patricia Dorsey said displaying flags should be voluntary for teachers.
“We have a segment of students that are hurt, and it’s just not the LGBTQ+ group, but it’s their allies, their friends,” Dorsey said. "I think we’re really doing a disservice to them.”
Board member Donna Sivigny told Dorsey her comments were well stated, but said she was concerned about situations in which a young student could question the meaning behind pride flags in the classrooms.
Carroll County Daily Headlines
“We don’t want to hurt the students, that’s definitely not our intent,” Sivigny said, " … but I think the situation was handled poorly and we’re taking on things that we don’t necessarily understand that are violating some of the other kids’ rights.”
Carroll Board of Education President Kenny Kiler, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, said the school system is divided on the issue.
“Today, multiple times, I was called a homophobe because we’re going to vote on a flag policy,” Kiler said. “Is that inclusion?”
Battaglia said the board is supposed to support all children in the school system.
“People want everyone to be accepting and loving, but at the same time they want to call people names and it’s wrong,” Battaglia said. “That is hypocrisy at its finest, so it’s either everybody stops trying to label each other or break each other down or do we get back to segregated schools? Like, seriously, is that what we need to do?”
No decision was made Wednesday. Kiler said a decision on the draft flag policy will take place at the next board meeting, set for June 8.