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    Monday, January 30, 2023

    Stonington schools remove Pride flags from classrooms

    Stonington ― A group of residents is criticizing a decision by Superintendent of Schools Mary Anne Butler to remove Pride flags from classrooms in the school system.

    While the issue was not listed on the agenda of last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, it was discussed after two residents confronted the board about the decision to remove the rainbow-colored flag which symbolizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and social movements.

    Some parents and residents, including 43rd House District Democratic candidate, Ashley Gillece, have now called on the school board to hold a special meeting to discuss the issue.

    William Heughins of Pawcatuck, told the board at last week’s meeting that he strongly disagreed with the decision to remove the flags, and he did not understand how it could be considered political.

    “We’re an inclusive school, in an inclusive community-- at least I hope we are-- and doing this just sets us back. It's really disappointing. I really don't understand how a few people can push the agenda,” he said.

    Butler said in an email Monday, that the issue arose when a parent expressed a concern about a Pride flag in a classroom and asserted it was a violation of the district’s policy on political materials in classrooms.

    The policy bans the display or distribution of political materials during school hours, unless they are used for educational purposes, and further requires that materials be presented in an unbiased, objective manner which is appropriate to the age of the students.

    Butler stated, “Other individuals have expressed, however, that Pride flags are not political but rather a symbol intended to promote acceptance and inclusion. The district has sought a legal opinion on this matter and is currently following that interpretation.”

    Furthermore, she said, “In response to the parent’s concern, the administration reviewed the circumstance and made fact-specific decisions, in collaboration with the teacher and the building principal, regarding the display of materials in a particular space.”

    She said that since the initial concern was raised, “a few additional situations have arisen and each is being dealt with individually between the teacher and the building administrator. All of these have been at the secondary level and in classroom settings.”

    She declined to answer questions about the number of complaints received, how many teachers were affected by the order to remove the flags, whether or not anything was sent to parents about the issue and if an attorney provided a written legal opinion on the matter.

    The Day has submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request for a copy of any written legal opinion received by the district about the flags.

    Pride flags and LGBTQIA+ symbols in classrooms have increasingly been banned in districts nationwide, as school systems grapple with the divisive issue. Various media reports attribute the issue to fears of lawsuits over what is increasingly seen as a form of political speech.

    In April, Southington responded to the issue by banning the flying of any flag other than the town, state, military and American flags, and in June, a group of students walked out of Farmington High School in protest over the school’s refusal to fly the Pride flag.

    Stonington Board of Education Chairman Farouk Rajab said on Monday, “the way this was handled, it was something the superintendent made a decision on, and she made a decision based on guidance she received from board policies and other legal advice.”

    He added, “we need the teacher’s union, the administration, and the board committee to meet and review this and find the right answer, and the answer is—our priority is the safety of our kids, their education, and the safety of our staff, so we want to protect all kids’ and all staff members’ freedom of expression, and, at the same time, we want to have a neutral environment for the kids to learn in. That’s our priority.”

    Board member Sarah Baker addressed the issue at last week’ meeting saying, “having a pride flag in our schools can be a very small, but impactful, way that we can signal support for all of our students. I do not see this as pushing a particular agenda other than the agenda to support all of our students.”

    When reached on Tuesday, Baker said a meeting is scheduled for Wednesday evening between the teacher’s union and three members of the Board of Education. The meeting is not public because it does not include a quorum of the school board or an established board committee.

    “My perspective is that what we’re discussing is an issue of dignity, and how do we make sure that everyone that comes into our schools is treated to a dignified environment in the work that they do and in the space that they’re in,” she said.

    Baker also said that, in her experience in higher education, the display of Pride flags “does not fall under the category of political statements, because we understand that, when they are placed in the classroom, they are for signaling inclusion, signaling acceptance, signaling respect, and being able to communicate that non-verbal message, and especially the message of safety.”

    When asked if she was aware of the number of teachers impacted by the decision and which schools the teachers work at, she said “we haven’t been made aware of that, but I imagine that’s going to be the topic—probably where we start our discussion tomorrow, is getting a sense of numbers, impact and so forth.”

    Through tears, Rachel O’Dell, of Pawcatuck, told the board last week about a child who had been bullied throughout his school years, beginning at the age of five, and, in sixth grade, was told he should kill himself by some of his peers. She said he found pride in himself when he went to Stonington High School and joined the Alliance for Acceptance club.

    She concluded her statement saying, “no matter who we love, no matter what we dress like, and no matter what we look like, we are all beautiful people, and I hope that every parent in every town realizes that they wouldn’t want their child in that position-- where they have to decide whether they wanted to choose life or death.”

    Gillece, posted a statement Sunday to her campaign Facebook page which read in part, “For the last 24 hours I have been sent numerous emails regarding the removal of Pride flags from our schools in Stonington. As a parent first and foremost I understand the frustrations I’m hearing on multiple aspects. The most important being we need to acknowledge right now the mental health crisis that is continuing to climb in youth especially in the LGBT community.”

    She continued, “Secondly as parents I agree many of us would have would have attended a meeting if given the chance to discuss this issue had it been an agenda item and believe this should happen now and not in November. Every day that goes by parents will continue to feel frustration and lack of an ability to advocate for their children.”

    A joint statement by State Senator Heather Somers, R-Groton, State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, and 41st House District Republican candidate Robert Boris, posted to Howard’s campaign Facebook page by Somers on Tuesday, read, “as elected officials and candidates for office we do not feel that the Pride Flag is political speech. Rather, we like most of our community do recognize it is merely a symbol of inclusion in our school community. We understand the position the school administration is in given our current climate, but we are confident that the Stonington School Administration team is committed to all students feeling welcome in their school. We have pledged our support to the administration, teachers, social workers, students and parents to help find a resolution that works to be sure all feel welcome at Stonington Schools.”

    Stonington Education Association President Mike Freeman did not respond to requests for comment.

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