As readers of Phildelphia area newspapers know, a battle has been raging in the Central Bucks School District over how a number of sensitive cultural topics should be handled in the classrooms and school libraries. While subjects concerning race, ethnicity, religion, and political party leanings have all merited mention as examples of thorny challenges to districtwide policy, no single issue has proved as explosive as the question of whether to permit teachers to display the rainbow-colored Pride flag, signifying dignity and rights for sexual minorities, in their classrooms. If compromise can be found for that conflict, it seems safe to say that a similar approach might be applied to the remaining areas of discord.
On Jan. 10, 2023, the school board voted 6-3 to ban the display of “any flag, banner, poster, sign, sticker, pin, button, insignia, paraphernalia, photograph or other similar material that advocates concerning any partisan, political, or social policy issue.” The board exempted from this ban such a display if it were part of a curriculum unit; if flags were those of the United States, Pennsylvania, or a federal or state military branch; or if school personnel wore a small piece of jewelry representing an individual’s personal beliefs (see Policy 321). The board majority argues that education proceeds best when teachers check their politics at the classroom door, thereby encouraging students to develop and express their own views. The majority acknowledges that its ban would prevent the hanging of a Pride flag but adds that it would similarly prohibit, for example, a pro-life banner, signifying opposition to abortion.
The three minority members of the school board counter that the new ban on partisan, political or social advocacy is really a smokescreen for eliminating views from the classroom with which the majority disagrees, especially, they write, “positive representations of diversity that reflect the beauty in our society.” Education proceeds best, in the minority’s view, when students feel they belong in their schools. “[F]or historically marginalized groups, most notably the LGBTQ community,” achieving this goal requires a welcoming environment fostered through the display of such symbols as the Pride flag. As one poster at a recent protest on behalf of the minority’s position put it, “Pride is not political.”
So far the battle has remained nonviolent, but angry statements, name-calling (“indoctrination” vs. “censorship”), and protest actions by parents, teachers, and students threaten to turn the conflict in an uncivil direction. A pending investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into a formal complaint brought by the ACLU against the district for creating a “hostile environment” for gay and transgender students has also caused the school board to begin to spend large sums on legal advice. For these reasons, a compromise acceptable to both sides could head off a waste of future resources or worse troubles.
Here’s how a compromise could work. The school system would replace the Pride flags with a conspicuous sign placed at the front of every classroom. The sign would read, “This school does not tolerate discrimination against or bullying of any student.” Teachers would be required to talk about the sign to their classes when the sign first appears and periodically thereafter, explaining why its addition to the classroom environment came about, how it is meant to make the classroom feel safe for all students, including but not limited to members of historically stigmatized minorities. Teachers would also be charged with remaining on the lookout for any acts of discrimination or bullying that occur within their purview, taking steps established by the school administration to bring an end to such acts.
The school board should take the further initiative of establishing a well-publicized mechanism, with protections of privacy and due process for all parties, that encourages students to come forward to report any acts that they believe constitute discrimination or bullying. These reports, like those originating from teachers about student behavior, should be subjected to a transparent procedure for remedying the situation. As the school district shows through its actions that it is determined to end any discrimination and bullying, the claim made by the ACLU that it represents seven unnamed students who have suffered such treatment is likely to be dismissed, and the district can in turn dispense with its costly attorneys’ fees.
In this dispute both sides make valuable points. The school board majority is fundamentally correct that education needs to be kept distinct from advocacy. The minority is also right to be concerned about the emotional needs of vulnerable students. There is a way forward that can satisfy both these positions.
Tony Fels is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of San Francisco. He now lives in Delaware County.