The Carroll County school board voted Wednesday to develop a new policy on the use of political symbols, specifically flags, inside public school buildings. The decision came in reaction to some parental concern about rainbow pride flags that some teachers in Carroll County Public Schools have been displaying inside classrooms.
Community members and schools Superintendent Steven Lockard said Wednesday that the pride flags are used to show support for LGBTQ+ students, but school board members said they believe the flags are political symbols and displaying them in schools goes against the 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 board meeting opened with Lockard bringing up the distribution of rainbow flags to public schools 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.
“[The flags] were made available to any staff that wanted one, and since that time any leftover donated flags were collected to be sent to [the] central office,” Lockard said. “Staff are not required to take donations if they choose not to. It’s also important to reiterate that Carroll County Public Schools, as we talk about in all of our meetings, strives to meet all the needs of students in our system.”
Brown said she organized the effort to support her 13-year-old child, who had been bullied for being an LGBTQ+ advocate. She said the idea for distributing the flags came to her after a January school board meeting at which the school board updated its policy aimed at limiting political conversations in classrooms.
“After that board meeting I contacted the central office and made social media posts to a local community group asking if members of the community would be interested in acquiring the flags,” Brown said. “I got a lot of interest from the community, and the PFLAG organization offered to [purchase] all of the flags for me. We wouldn’t have been able to distribute all the flags without PFLAG.”
During the subsequent public comment period at the board meeting, nearly 20 parents spoke about the flags and were divided on the issue. Some expressed that they don’t want elementary and middle school kids to ask questions about the flags in their classrooms; supporters spoke of students being bullied and argued that the flags are needed to make them feel more comfortable; others said they just want teachers to stick to the curriculum but stressed that they didn’t want that to be interpreted as being against LGBT students.
School board member Donna Sivigny made a motion to develop a flag policy to address concerns about political symbols. Tara Battaglia seconded the motion, and all members voted in favor.
School board member Patricia Dorsey said she supported a new policy to address flags, adding that she wants every student to feel like they belong.
“The underlying theme that I’m hearing is respect, and certainly we need to respect each and every student,” Dorsey said. “Those are the kind of environments we want our students to learn in.”
Student school board member Devanshi Mistry, a senior at Liberty High School, said she did not support a new flag policy. The student member does not have voting rights on the school board.
“This was one of the questions and concerns that I had [about the political neutral policy],” said Mistry, who participates but is not a voting member of the board. “If a teacher wanted to display a pride flag in their classroom as a show of support and acceptance to students, would they be allowed to do so? And at the time, based on what I heard from the board members, that was permissible.”
School board member Tara Battaglia explained to Mistry that she believed allowing pride flags would permit more political symbols to be used in classrooms.
“What this does is open up a gateway for other flags to come into our schools that other people will not like,” Battaglia said. “We already banned the Confederate flag, and that was done a couple of years ago.”
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. Revisions require 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 revised policy also states that “[N]o employee shall: Engage in a captive audience classroom discussion of the employee’s viewpoints on political issues, parties, and candidates; and prevent non-disruptive student expression of student viewpoints on political issues, parties, and candidates.”
School Board President Kenneth Kiler said the board would develop a flag policy that would include input from school board members and the community.
Lockard said pride flags have represented a sign of acceptance and inclusion for more than a decade.
“I know that it’s very important to our students,” Lockard said. “I don’t want to see us lose inclusivity or the ability for our students to seek our support.”