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Supporters of inclusive badges turn out to Fenton school board meeting

More than 200 residents turned out Monday for a meeting at Fenton High School to discuss a controversy that has been created over teachers in the district showing support for students of all races, genders and abilities.

At issue are Fenton educators who have chosen to wear badges that say “EQUALITY; Stronger Together,” using a variety of symbols for each letter representing a diversity of identities.

Chuck Miller, vice president of the Fenton Education Association, said the badges are meant to indicate that the wearer is safe to speak with and that students will be met with kindness and not judgment

“Wearing these badges is important to us and it’s important to our students,” said Miller, a high school chemistry teacher who attended the meeting. “It’s a way to show our students that we support them and we see them. The more our students are seen — the more they feel they have a community and support, the better they do, not just academically but socially.”

In recent weeks a group of residents have protested the badges as being inappropriate.

“The colorful symbols used to spell out the word ‘equality’ are in most cases age-inappropriate, they are culturally divisive, not inclusive of all students, disparaging of those not listed, potentially racist, and the symbol representing the letter ‘T’ promotes an absolute falsehood,” one man said at Monday’s meeting. “The male and female sex symbol are not equivalent. Everyone knows this.”

However, the symbol he was referring to, a mix of the male and female symbols with an equal sign in the center, is internationally recognized as representing gender equality and not trans identity, which uses an entirely different symbol.

Despite that, the overwhelming majority of speakers, many in red shirts, were in support of Fenton educators being able to wear the equality badges.

“I wish I had a teacher wearing this badge when I was in high school,” said Chelsea Carter-Willbanks, a 2003 Fenton graduate who attended the meeting with her wife. “It would have made me feel seen and safe.”

Also speaking was Fenton High senior Avary LaClear.

“The badge makes me feel as a student more loved, heard, seen and cared for,” she said. “They represent compassion in our community.”

Another speaker, Laura Wagonlander, an early fives teacher at Tomek Eastern Elementary in Fenton, wanted to address what she believed was a misperception by some that the badges are “inherently sexual.”

“Sexual orientation is not sex,” Wagonlander said. “I have a picture of my family in my class. It announces my sexual orientation because it shows me with my husband.”

She added that concerns over addressing sexual orientation with younger students were overblown.

“I have students with a mom and dad, one mom or one dad, two moms or two dads, or a grandparent,” she said. “They’re curious. They ask questions. But once they learn it takes all kinds of people to make a family, their questions are done. That’s all they need to know at that age.”

Following the more than one hour of public comments, the Fenton school board made no motion or comment indicating they planned to alter the policy of allowing educators and school staff to wear the badges if they wish.

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