Two Livingston County Schools, Hartland and Fowlerville, recently passed what are known as “content neutral” policies regarding displays on campus. As a Livingston County educator with over two decades of service to students and families in Howell Public Schools, I strongly oppose these policies.
Despite the attempts by some school leaders to frame these policies differently, they are not “content neutral.” They are designed to exclude the display of Pride flags and symbols in schools. This issue may be easily tested by questioning what classroom displays will be impacted by these vague policies. Given the language of “content neutral” policies and the published comments of school board members in Hartland and Fowlerville, it’s clear that other than the removal of Pride displays, very little will change. Boards of education can label and number these policies whatever they want, but we all know what their intent is.
A reason frequently given for these policies is that politics don’t belong in schools. I agree that to the extent possible, politics should not determine school policy. Boards of education should pass policies that support the needs of their students. While the Pride flag has been politicized, it is not political. The Pride flag is a simple and effective way for one person to let others know they support members of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s not a political statement and shouldn’t be controversial.
These “content neutral” policies are also likely to be bad for business. We are on the precipice of an educator shortage. School districts are already looking for ways to attract new employees. New educators who aspire to work in public schools are not likely to seek out employment with districts that signal through their policies that they are not welcoming and supportive of members of the LGBTQ+ community. They can see right through the “content neutral” spin just like everyone else.
These policies are also bad for the students schools serve. When students see a Pride flag on display, they know that members of the LGBTQ+ community will be accepted for who they are. Making acceptance clear doesn’t threaten anyone regardless of their religious beliefs or personally held values or viewpoints. Telling a gay kid they are welcome doesn’t make the straight kids any less welcome. In fact, the Pride flag represents values nearly all people share. Compassion and acceptance are universal.
It would be great if we lived in a world where nobody had to wonder if they are accepted or valued. Without question, we’re making progress, but we’re not there yet. I wonder if leadership in Hartland and Fowlerville took the time to reach out to students and ask them if they feel safe and accepted. I wonder if they asked students how the Pride flag makes them feel. We’ve made a lot of progress over the years, now is not the time to go backwards. If schools want members of the LGBTQ+ community to know they’re accepted and valued they should just tell them. And they should do so with pride.
Greg Talberg is a veteran educator in Howell Public Schools and is a parent to two daughters. He has also served as a school board president in Williamston and is the former chair of the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council.