Most people can agree that we don’t want our public schools to be filled with biased political or religious messaging — but what happens when administrators think that issues like identity, equality, and diversity are political?
That question is playing out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Kettle Moraine School District Superintendent Stephen Plum has informed the school board that the district’s new definition of what’s “political” means that there will be a lot of changes coming to the hallways this fall.
Just for starters: Teachers will not be able to display pride flags, Black Lives Matters material, no Back the Badge material. They have also been disallowed from sharing their preferred pronouns in emails.
The controversy all started on July 27, when Plum addressed the school board, explaining that he’d had a legal analysis done of existing employee policies that prohibits staff from using their positions to “promote partisan politics, religious views and propaganda for personal, monetary or non-monetary gain.”
While the policy sounds completely reasonable — no one wants teachers sharing their personal political views with kids — the new requirements seem to ban teachers from openly sharing their identity, showing kids the importance of diversity and equity, or discussing events like the Pride or BLM movements to students.
Plum did say, though, that wearing a cross would be acceptable.
"We live in a world where politics are highlighted, and it puts people in uncomfortable positions,” he explained. “I feel the staff can fully support students. I feel that every staff member, custodian and teacher ought to know that it's really in the best interest of the students to look out for them and to have strong, healthy relationships that develop therefrom.”
Only one board member, Jim Romanowski, voted against the policy, after hearing from students and staff.
The school board meeting was posted on Facebook, and the enormous pushback against the policy update began.
“Labeling rainbow pride flags as ‘political or religious’ seems like a slippery slope to me seeing as they are clearly not. I think that refusing to acknowledge and fully accept the LGBTQ community in school is doing a disservice to all students. Forcing teachers to hide the fact that they would be supportive of closeted students will discourage those students from making important connections with trusted adults and truly living their healthiest lives,” wrote one commenter.
A former student said, “I came out in high school thanks to the accessible GSA and teachers who openly supported the lgbt community. I feel so immeasurably bad for current and future LGBT students at KM. KM is supposed to be better than this.”
And this is a very strong point: “When you choose to elect openly partisan candidates to non-partisan office, this is the type of outcomes that you’re stuck with.”
Trey Korte, a former English teacher and a Teacher of the Year in the school district who is gay, spoke to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about his feelings on the reinterpretation of the policy.
"The idea that the very presence of a Pride flag or markers that say this is a safe space — for that to be deemed as either political or religious, that seemed to be a real stretch. It seemed a passive-aggressive, legalistic way of silencing LGBTQ teachers and allies and students," Korte said. "Teachers not being able to promote political viewpoints — I get it, that's fair, that's sensible. But if you're going to tell a teacher that you can't have a Pride flag because it's 'political,' then I feel like the onus ought to be on you to explain why it's political, and that's the question they don't seem to be answering.”
And now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is getting involved.
"If you have a policy that says 'nothing political,' does that mean you can't have a sign up that says, 'Support our Troops,' or 'Believe Women' or 'Save the Planet'? By some people's definitions, all of those things are political," said Christine Donahoe, an attorney with the Wisconsin ACLU. “It really looks like targeted attacks at specific viewpoints, like LGBT communities, or welcome and safe spaces to students of color.”
According to the Associated Press, two students at Kettle Moraine High School, Bethany Provan and Brit Farrar, have started a petition that has already collected 1,400 signatures. It states that pride flags make students feel safe and secure — and that telling people your pronouns is something important to “everyday life.”
At least the kids are all right.