COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - The Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education, pictured here, voted unanimously to allow the Pride flags that were taken down on Nov. 18 from district classrooms to be put back up during their meeting Monday.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Stacy LaRoy, a teacher at Three Rivers Middle School, speaks against the removal of Pride flags during Monday’s Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education meeting.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education Interim Secretary Ben Karle speaks on the Pride flag removal issue during board comment at Monday’s meeting.

Pride flags return to TR schools

School board ok’s removed Pride flags to be hung back up; classroom display

THREE RIVERS — Pride flags taken down in Three Rivers schools because of an “outside challenge” can now be put back up.

During a Monday night meeting that drew well over 100 people and following a more than two-hour closed session, the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to reverse the district’s directive from November to remove Pride flags from district classrooms and allow the ones that were originally taken down after Nov. 18 in schools to be hung back up.

In addition, the school board said they will begin the process of coming up with a classroom display policy, which will be done over the coming months. District officials say they will look for community input when drafting the policy, with more details on how to do so to come after the new year.

The decision comes after controversy erupted on Nov. 22 when a directive was handed down by the district to remove Pride flags from Three Rivers Middle School classrooms, due to an “external challenge” from a parent on Nov. 18 regarding Pride flags in classrooms and the middle school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) after-school club. The district’s law firm, Thrun Law Firm, was consulted at the time, and directed the district to take the action until further notice.

While the board originally amended the agenda at the start of Monday’s meeting to have discussion on “classroom displays” after the closed session period, there was not a formal board discussion done in open session. Rather, the motion to allow the Pride flags to be put back up and to begin the display policy creation was made as soon as the board came out of closed session, with Board President Erin Nowak reading a statement from the board regarding the decision after the vote.

“The board will take community feedback on a classroom displays policy and any additional ideas that will allow the district to move forward as a united school community,” Nowak said. “The Board and the district will also strongly consider training sessions for staff members on how to respond to student concerns related to diversity and inclusion. This is a process that will take time, but the board is committed to making sure it’s done properly.”

Prior to the closed session and the decision made by the board, a number of people spoke on the issue during two rounds of public comment. A majority of the comments were against the removal of Pride flags.

“A lot of your students don’t have a safe home environment, a lot of their parents are not accepting. To know they have a teacher that would have their back could save their life,” parent Rebecca Broyce said. “On top of that, the fact that we’re talking about this comparison with religion, an identity is not the same thing as a religious belief. Queerness is an identity. Being queer is who a person is, and as a queer mother, I’d want to know that if my child were in a situation like this, she’d have a safe place to go to.”

“This is a federally-funded public school that is mandated to represent and protect all students, and not just heterosexual norms. Forcing kids back in the closet is counter to the goals of a public school institution in 2021,” parent Amy Pradna said.

“Our school district pushes that we’re the district of choice, but who are we the district of choice for? Only straight students?” Stacy LaRoy, a parent and teacher at the middle school, said. “What kind of message it signals to students that are part of the community is that we are not the district of choice for you, you’re not welcome here.”

“In regards to all the students that saw this flag get taken down, you send a clear message to them that their sexuality is not okay in Three Rivers Community Schools, and they should go back into the closet where you put their flag,” parent Danielle Moreland said. “Anyone who does an online search for Three Rivers, Michigan will forever be able to see how closed-minded our schools are.”

Some students at the middle school also spoke out against the removal, mainly supporting their fellow classmates and the GSA club, while also saying they appreciated seeing the support the LGBTQ+ community at the school had from teachers. Some also talked about their experiences at the school when it came to being LGBTQ+ or an ally of the community, relaying the negativity they would face from other students for being so since the flags were removed, and not feeling safe at school because of it.

There were some who spoke that supported the decision to remove the Pride flags, mainly on religious grounds and questions about what other flags would be allowed if the Pride flag was.

“Over the years, in the public school system, there’s always been a fight about keeping Christianity out. What’s the school board going to say when a Christian group wants to hang a Christian flag in the school? Is it going to be accepted or fought?” Jerry Kirby said. “If you go down this route, this is going to cause all kinds of problems, and I believe the school system is most possibly going to see lawsuits.”

“I agree with the board in having the flags removed, because there’s so many other flags and materials that are not allowed. These kids are special, but they’re not more special than other kids,” parent Jamey Southland said. “Just to be neutral, I think we need to just not have anything religious, political, or any other type of flag hanging in a classroom. A student shouldn’t have to have a flag hanging in a classroom to feel accepted or loved.”

The public comment period was mainly civil. The lone contentious moment in the meeting came at the very end of the first public comment section, when Jerry Solis, a local pastor and Republican candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives, was shouted down by a number of people in attendance when he commented, “To have an LGBT trans group and a flag, they don’t belong, and they can be counterproductive to the child. It reinforces to them that they are wrong.”

The shouting from the crowd, with some objectors calling his comment “hate speech,” continued for the remainder of his public comment time, growing louder when he asked to start his comment over because of the interruption, and he did not finish before the three-minute comment timer was up. The board almost immediately voted to go into closed session right after.

Later on in the meeting and following the vote, board members commented on the situation. Board Interim Secretary Ben Karle thanked those who attended and spoke during the meeting, and talked about the “challenges” that have come with the situation, saying he “unequivocally supports” Pride flags in school and the GSA club.

“I’m not glad that this incident happened, but I sure am glad this is getting talked about now instead of after a tragedy,” Karle said. “The resounding theme that I hear is about human rights and safety. I’ve had friends hurt by this incident, and have had a lot of people reaching out. We have the opportunity here to help heal, not hurt. At the very least, we can all agree to not cause harm, and those are the right directions to take to create spaces for conversation and create a community we all want to live in.

“There are a few in our communities nationwide who choose hatred, who choose division, and in many ways have succeeded in sowing division. I’m optimistic this can be a turning point toward healing, because that’s not the TR we are,” Karle continued, thanking those who came out to protest, in particular the students. “Our young people have voices. Their voices are loud, their voices are persistent and their voices are real … I see you for who you are, I accept you for who you are. Find your place in activism, don’t give up, because that’s the TR that we are.”

Trustee Melissa Bliss said she was comfortable with the board’s decision to have the Pride flags returned, since they were the only ones that came down. She said she was proud of the board for working together. Vice President Linda Baker said the situation has resulted in a “larger conversation” about diversity and inclusion in school.

“I think this whole question has resulted in a larger conversation about how we go forward with safety and diversity and respect in school and adhering to our value statement and our outcomes,” Baker said. “We’re going to be working hard on that in the next few months, and this doesn’t happen overnight. Change is slow, and it should be that way. It should be deliberate and considered, and that’s what we intend to do. I’m glad to have the chance to have some brainstorming with the community in finding a way forward.”

Nowak finished by saying that the situation is ongoing, and discussion on it will continue to occur as policy is being developed.

“It doesn’t end tonight, the conversations will continue to happen, the policies will continue to be developed. No matter how proactive we try to be with anticipating things that might happen, there are times where situations occur and we have to be reactive to them, and unfortunately that came with a lack of a policy in this situation,” Nowak said. “As we always do, the seven of us will work together with Mrs. Nash to try to continue to move the district forward and do the best for our students, our staff and our community.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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