The debate over safe space stickers and pride flags is once again causing controversy in Livingston County as the Fowlerville Board of Education considers a policy that would effectively ban any displays that are not “content neutral.”
A similar policy was recently adopted by Hartland Consolidated Schools, wherein the Board of Education determined that any media including signs, posters, stickers, and flags (other than the American and Michigan flags), “depicting any social and/or political causes unrelated to the daily curriculum shall not be allowed in schools and classrooms unless the media/items are for the classroom discussion as part of the curriculum for that day and subject.”
Fowlerville’s proposal would only permit displays of the American Flag, current school flag, temporary classroom displays pertaining to a specific unit of study, Michigan High School Athletic Association or other similar sport tournament Displays recognizing the participation of or accomplishment of a school team and/or athlete, and displays of colleges, universities, or the military that promote future learning.
All speakers during the call to the public spoke in vehement opposition to the proposal, many calling the proposal a targeted act of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students. Fowlerville Community Schools’ official non-discrimination policy asserts that “the District will not discriminate against any person based on sex, race, color, national origin, religion, height, weight, marital status, handicap, age, or disability.” Notably, FCS is one of two public school districts in Livingston County that does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
As a veteran teacher and the advisor for Fowlerville High School’s Umbrella Club, Alicia Zemper noted that this decision should not be a political one, but rather one centered around the needs of students.
“Teachers have been focused on student safety and engagement,” Zemper explained. “41% of LGBTQ+ youth have considered suicide… displaying a rainbow flag is the least we can do.”
Bill Vliek expressed frustration with the board’s lack of planning and transparency, as well as the apparent disconnect between the board and the community. Vliek explained that, when this proposal was first read at the March 21st Board of Education meeting, the board had promised to review the language and modify as needed to reflect the community perspectives. However, board documents indicate that no revisions have been made to the text of the proposal. Vliek noted that to many– including the numerous students who had shown up to make their perspectives heard– this comes across as an instance of “[the board] telling the community that their voices don’t matter.”
Jen Hoffmeyer, a Fowlerville parent and alum, pointed out the vision statement painted on the media center wall: Empower students to be productive citizens in a global society.
“Every employer in this county expects global citizens,” Hoffmeyer elaborated. “You have to get along with people you don’t like or agree with… but you have to get the job done, and treat people with respect and kindness.”
If the board voted to pass this type of proposal, Hoffmeyer added, they’d need to find a new vision statement.
Trustee Diana Dombrowski was the sole member of the board to vocally condemn the proposed policy, citing it as “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“When I was elected to the board, I said to the people that I would not do anything purposefully to harm students,” Dombrowski continued. “And in my heart, I believe this will harm students– it will devalue them in their own eyes.”
Dombrowski also elaborated that, to her knowledge, there have been no complaints from parents or students over the flags, safe space stickers, or any type of display. She went on to describe the proposal as being “restrictive and vague,” particularly in regard to what would or wouldn’t be considered permissible under these guidelines. Dombrowski pointed out that athletic teams were permitted to put up displays or posters while other student organizations– various clubs, Student Council, and the performing arts– would not be allowed the same opportunity.
Board Treasurer John Belcher attempted to clarify this, his reasoning being that allowing student organizations to put up displays would “open the door for abuse.” His example being that “if someone wanted to put up a Confederate flag, they’d be allowed to.”
This statement in particular– seemingly equating a recognized hate symbol with the flag of a marginalized community– was met with audible backlash from those present.
Over the course of the meeting, the environment became increasingly heated, with frequent audience interruptions. The crowd openly ridiculed John Belcher’s attempts at clarification, but vocally supported Dombrowski’s stance on the proposal. Similarly, Danielle DeVries stated that she believed safe space stickers were unnecessary, her reasoning being that all school spaces were already safe for all children. This was met with derision from the audience and near silence from the Board.
Julie Ohashi, a Hartland parent and representative of Stand Against Extremism Livingston County, warned the board of potential consequences. Namely, she noted that Hartland is already experiencing negative effects from this policy and parents are working with the ACLU to sue the district.
A second and final reading of the Fowlerville board’s proposal will be presented at the next board meeting on July 18th.