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Fowlerville School Board adopts “content-neutral” display policy

The Fowlerville Board of Education voted Tuesday night to implement a policy that would effectively ban any displays that are not “content neutral.”

The concept of content-neutral displays was called into question repeatedly, though, as several members of the public were quick to point out, the language of the proposal was vague and failed to clearly outline what clubs, organizations, or activities could be promoted.

The official language of Proposal 8805 states that the only displays permissible are those that promote athletics, post-secondary education or opportunities (such as universities or the military), or are part of a temporary unit of study. As representatives from Fowlerville’s Performing Arts Department, D & D Club, Umbrella Club, and Tech Club pointed out, the emphasis on athletics over all other student clubs and organizations excludes a great many students from having their achievements advertised. Any posters, displays, or classroom content– including merit-based rewards and certificates like those awarded to the National Honors Society– are now subject to administrative approval.

One Fowlerville teacher expressed her dismay over the proposal, pointing out how many teachers are already struggling. As a newer teacher, she explained, she qualifies for low-income housing and has to work two jobs to make ends meet, and yet is expected to supply pencils and paper for her students out of pocket, to work in a classroom where temperatures reached 85℉ this past year. To be further micromanaged by the district when already struggling is an insult to the educational professionals.

“It means the world for us as professionals to be respected and acknowledged as educators who want to do what’s best for our kids,” she added. “This proposal gives the impression that you question our ability to do right by our kids.”

The Board disagreed over what factors incited this proposal and the ensuing debate, but comments from both the board and the public have made it clear that Pride flags, stickers, and displays supporting LGBTQ+ students are at the center of the debate.

The Fowlerville Gay-Straight Alliance– also known as the Umbrella Club– was formed in 2023. Prior to the past week, the Board of Education had not received any parent complaints regarding the club’s posters. As trustee Diana Dombrowski stated at last week’s meeting, it appears that this topic only became an issue when the board decided to question the policy.

One teacher pointed out that, to her knowledge, there are no classrooms with full-sized Pride flags anywhere in Fowlerville High School. Despite this, many advocates for the proposal seemed convinced that the Pride flag was usurping the American flag’s place in the classroom.

In contrast to last week’s meeting, the call to the public was evenly divided on the issue Tuesday. Board President Amy Sova also indicated that parent support for the proposal had increased over the past week, with 82% of emails received by the Board of Education supporting the initiative.

The three-and-a-half-hour call to the public was filled with anecdotes and arguments from students, teachers, and parents. Several speakers noted that the Alverson Auditorium quickly became a heated and hostile environment. One speaker was verbally attacked in the lobby following their public comments, and several individuals– including students– were booed by the audience.

A fifteen-year-old student explained the profound impact of discovering a supportive LGBTQ+ community at FHS. She– along with numerous other students– spoke of isolation, of what it felt like to lack a community. 

“The first year I came here was eighth grade. In the first week, I was told to throw away my Pride pin. And it hurt… and just last year as a freshman, I found an entire community that I felt safe in. A community that I hadn’t felt before,” she told the board. “I know I’m not alone, and I know that I don’t want to be up here speaking about my rights as a fifteen-year-old, but here I am, speaking about something that should be granted to me.”

Kate Alverson’s father successfully navigated the bond proposal that gave the district the Alverson Center for Performing Arts. As an advocate for the arts, she was strongly opposed to the implications of this proposal. 

“An Alverson gave you a gift, and the gift was the arts,” Alverson pointed out. “And you’re silencing the arts by silencing the groups that want to be in this theatre, and want to put on shows, and want to be represented. To shut them out by blanketing in a policy about safe spaces is extremely ignorant.” 

“Exclusion and ignorance only breeds exclusion and ignorance,” Alverson concluded.

Those in favor of the proposal tended to argue their perspectives from either a nationalist or religious perspective. Many, including Kayley Brown, implored the board to “keep [Pride flags] out of schools the way they keep everything else out,” referring to the exclusion of religious symbols or practice in public schools.

Others, like Jason Woolford, a reverend who serves as President of Mission Cry / Christian Resources International, expressed the belief that Pride flags were unnecessary as the American flag served as an all-encompassing symbol, representing all individuals. The debate over the exact meaning and significance of the American flag continued throughout the evening, with little to no consensus. 

John Conely, a trustee on the Brighton Board of Education, also expressed his support for the proposal, stating that “at this time, political advertising is not allowed in public schools or in a public space.” Despite objections from the audience that Pride flags are not indicative of any political idealogy, Conley went on to add that “we are here to promote safety for all students.”

Another key argument for those in favor of the proposal was the idea that the goal of public education is merely to teach “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” presumably leaving all other aspects of education– particularly social education– to parents. Many more simply dismissed the accusations of targeted bullying against LGBTQ+ students in the district, with one speaker explaining that “all kids are bullied for some reason or another.”

However, a 2020 report by the CDC indicates that 43% of transgender youth have been bullied on school property as compared to 18% of cisgender youth. Similarly,  29% of gay or lesbian youth and 31% of bisexual youth have been bullied on school property, compared to 17% of straight youth.

Proposal 8805 passed by a vote of 6 to 1, with only Diana Dombrowski opposing. While Dombrowski and fellow trustee John Belcher reiterated their stances from the last meeting, the remainder of the board stayed relatively silent in the discussion.

Newly appointed superintendent Matt Stuard thanked the public and board, citing the night’s discussion as an important topic, and adding that he would “work with the Fowlerville staff and board members to successfully implement Policy 8805 in the coming weeks and months.”

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