Pendleton Heights students question removal of LGBTQ+ pride flags from classrooms
Indiana Youth Group has a new home on Meridian Street to help young LGBTQ Hoosiers Indianapolis Star
Students at Pendleton Heights High School are asking their district to reconsider its policies after several teachers were told to remove pride flags from their classrooms last month.
Bryce Axel-Adams, a junior at Pendleton, started an online petition to allow the flags to be displayed again. He had hoped for several dozen supporters — he had received nearly 3,000 signatures as of Thursday morning.
“As a freshman, I remember walking by (a teacher’s) classroom,” Bryce said. “She had it right on the wall so when you were passing by and looking into her room you could see it.
“I remember walking by her classroom, glancing at it and just being happy. I knew we had an ally here at the school.”
It’s not easy being gay in a small Indiana town, Bryce said. Seeing the rainbow stripes of the pride flag made him and his friends feel seen. Having it prohibited, he said, has been upsetting.
“We’re tired of having so little representation,” he said. “We’re tired of having people act like our feelings don’t matter, like our mental health doesn’t matter.”
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South Madison Community Schools officials say that the district isn’t anti-LGBTQ but that teachers are supposed to remain neutral and not engage in political speech.
“South Madison School Corporation welcomes and celebrates all its students and does not tolerate harassment or discrimination based on any protected class,” Superintendent Mark Hall wrote in an email to IndyStar. “We pride ourselves on creating an environment that is welcoming to all. Teachers are legally obligated to maintain viewpoint neutrality during their official duties to ensure all students can focus on learning, and we can maintain educational activities and school operations.”
Hall did not respond to follow-up questions about what laws require teachers to maintain “viewpoint neutrality.”
The district does have a policy prohibiting professional staff members from “using their position … for partisan political or sectarian religious purposes.”
At a meeting of the school board Thursday night, several South Madison families raised the issue and asked the district to reconsider. Board President Bill Hutton took notes as they spoke and said he would take their comments under advisement.
‘Just human rights, equal rights’
A pride flag shouldn’t be seen as political, though, said James Wills. Wills’ daughter, Tai, is a sophomore at Pendleton Heights and identifies as bisexual.
“They consider it political propaganda, when it’s not,” Wills said. “It’s literally just human rights, equal rights.
“You trust the school with your children and it’s supposed to be, you know, a safe place. They’re supposed to be stood up for and you expect that, so it’s definitely very frustrating to see… that they’re not.”
Tai is completing school virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic but said she and her friends were bullied last year “because of who we are.”
“My friends don’t have supportive parents like I do,” Tai said. “Seeing those flags … it means a lot to them and I do believe it does save lives.”
Numerous studies show that LGBTQ teens struggle with their mental health. A recent survey from the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth, found that more than 40% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
“I think there’s definitely a need for that flag to be there,” said Christina Wills, Tai’s mom. “It’s kind of a silent way of saying that there’s a safe space for them.”
That safe space is critically important for LGBTQ kids, said Chris Paulsen, executive director of Indiana Youth Group, which supports LGBTQ youth. Paulsen said that kidn of support can reduce rates of suicidal ideation and attempts. But many students don’t have a safe or affirming space at home. And outside of home, school is where kids spend the majority of their time.
“Removing these flags is literally removing a life-saver for them,” Paulsen said, “knowing that somebody supports them.”
Paulsen also sees it as part of a school’s and teacher’s job — supporting their students. Mandating the flags be taken down is actively working against that mission, she said.
“A student’s sexual orientation and gender identity isn’t political,” Paulsen said. “There are Republicans who are LGBTQ. There are Democrats who are LGBTQ… people who have no political affiliation.
“It’s not political. It’s innate. It’s something these students are born with.”
‘Displaying a flag in a school is a double edged sword’
The rights of the LGBTQ community have long been politicized as advocates have called upon law- and policy-makers to ensure equal rights and those opposed have worked to restrict them. Those fights have played out in schools, statehouses, courts, Congress and more.
Meggan Beck’s child is only in kindergarten, but she’s still concerned about the message her school district’s high school is sending to students. So, she reached out to the school board president, Bill Hutton.
“I told him I was very concerned,” Beck said.
“I understand your concern and I support all students no matter what their choices in life happen to be,” Hutton wrote in response. “It is their life, not mine.
“The issue with displaying a flag in a school is a double edged sword. If an LGBTQ+ flag is allowed to be displayed, then any other group would have the same ability.”
Hutton said that could include white supremacy groups.
“I hope we can model quality and support through our actions,” he wrote.
He did not respond to a request for comment from IndyStar. At Thursday’s board meeting, Hutton asked how the district could draw a line between different groups.
One audience member suggested drawing the line at “hate speech.”
Beck said she when she first got the response, she was angry. But now she just wants to help the school community understand why white supremacist groups aren’t the same as the LGBTQ community and why it’s important those students have support.
“There’s no hate here,” she said. “I just want to make sure that everybody can be educated as to why having that representation in our schools is so very important. It seems as though they don’t understand.”
Beck was one of several South Madison families who spoke at Thursday night’s meeting. Hutton commended the speakers and said he would work with anyone who had suggestions for the board to consider.
Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at Arika.Herron@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.
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Published at Fri, 21 May 2021 01:30:11 +0000