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Updated on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 at 11:25 a.m.
Students at Morgantown High School staged a walkout Wednesday afternoon to protest the removal of Pride flags from classrooms.
Monongalia County Superintendent Eddie Campbell asked all school principals to remove Pride flags just after the start of the school year. He cited a county policy that bans political activity in classrooms.
Morgantown High School senior and student leader Lonnie Medley, who uses he/they pronouns, said the Pride flags made school safer for LGBTQ students.
“Today, we unfortunately have to have a walkout to fight for our rights because yesterday at the board meeting, it didn’t seem to go very well,” they said. “There are so many people that don’t have accepting homes and school is the only place where they feel safe.”
Medley said that despite best intentions, even school is not a perfectly safe place.
“So a lot of people think that we are safe in school without the flags, but that’s not how it is,” they said. “We are unsafe, we get bullied, we get harassed every day. And the only places we are safe are the places that have pride flags, and accepting symbols.”
Fellow Morgantown High senior Will McGahey is hopeful that the walkout opens some eyes, but is ready to keep taking action to ensure the return of Pride flags to classrooms.
“Hopefully we helped the boards understand that, you know, people like us are here,” he said.
McGahey said community activists plan to organize more actions until the Pride flags are allowed back in schools.
Students, teachers, parents and community members gathered outside of the Monongalia County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, to protest the removal of Pride flags from classrooms at Morgantown High School (MHS).
Earlier this month, the county superintendent sent a letter to the county’s principals asking that Pride flags be removed from classrooms. The justification for the action was county policy 3231.01, which bans political activities in the county’s classrooms.
“The policy specifically bans literature being printed or distributed that deals with candidates, issues or points of view,” said Rev. Jenny Williams. “It’s clear from the content of the policy that it’s aimed at keeping election politics out of the classroom. I’m not really sure why the Pride flag is coming under that and the board will have to be able to state that tonight.”
Sam Hunley and Paige Corob are both seniors at MHS. They both arrived early to the meeting to take part in the demonstration against the flags’ removal, mingling with the crowd of more than 100 demonstrators.
“It’s really affected the LGBTQ youth in our system, and this is us coming together and standing against it because it means more to us than I think anybody understands,” Hunley said.
Corob called the decision heartbreaking, and disagreed with the characterization of the flag as political.
“It represents respect, and it shows the protection that we have, and that at the end of the day, we’re always going to have people that are supportive of us and supportive of loving who anybody loves, regardless of who that might be,” she said.
The decision had already garnered public discussion at the board’s Sept. 13 meeting where 13 community members spoke. At Tuesday’s meeting, 37 people were signed up to speak.
All public comment at Monongalia’s Board of Education meetings is limited to one hour, so each speaker was given just one minute and 37 seconds to speak. Most of the speakers were in favor of the Pride flags, or against their removal.
Staff from all three of the county’s high schools presented the board with letters outlining their concerns over the removal of the flag, and representatives from the faculty senates of University High School and MHS spoke in person.
Former Monongalia County teacher Rose Bell spoke about the experience of her nonbinary grandchild who used Pride flags to identify safe havens in their school.
“In those classrooms, there will be no bullying or harassment, and it won’t be tolerated,” Bell said. “The pride flag is an indicator that the teacher in that classroom is a trusted adult who will help them when there is an anxiety inducing situation, in or out of the classroom. Continuing to display the pride flag will ultimately provide a safer school environment.”
Speakers drew cheers from the crowd that had remained outside of the building, audible even from within the meeting chambers.
Some who spoke were in favor of the flags’ removal, such as Republican candidate for House of Delegates in district 78, Gino Chiarelli.
“Don’t let the crowd fool you. The overwhelming majority of people, parents and taxpayers in my district … believe you made the right decisions,” Chiarelli said. “Many of them fear backlash that they might incur because they dare stand against the political mob that is outside. So I want to say that I stand in solidarity with your decision. You made an excellent choice and the people of my district, the people of Morgantown at large, support you 100 percent.”
Later in the meeting, superintendent Eddie Campbell outlined the course of events that led to the removal of the flags. He said that after receiving concerned comments from community members that the Pride flags violated county policy, he consulted with outside legal counsel and took action.
“The guidance that I was provided with was ‘This does fall under your policy related to political activity in the classroom,’” Campbell said.
Campbell did not reveal what lawyer or firm he had consulted, and comments later in the meeting implied that not all board members had seen the legal analysis.
“I contacted our building principals, not the board, not these five people, I contacted our building principals,” Campbell said. “I said, ‘Please address the issue in your buildings. I want absolutely no consequences on the teachers that are displaying the flags.’”
Board member Daniel Berry said he interpreted the policy as applying to candidates running for political office and political parties. He expressed concern at the precedent the decision might set.
“I used to teach at Morgantown High and we had in the cafeteria, every flag of every country,” he said. “I think we’re going down a slippery slope, and that we might just have sterile white walls. I’m just really worried, and I think this probably needs to go on a future agenda.”
Board member Jennifer Hagerty reiterated that the Board of Education had taken no action on the issue of Pride flags, and questioned the legality of the decision.
“The ACLU, I think somebody brought this up in their speech, is pending litigation on this exact matter, overturning the board’s ruling on this exact conversation,” she said. “So I think we’re stepping into some legal territory that I personally think we need more information on because we aren’t quite prepared to make any decisions on Pride flags.”
Board member Ron Lytle focused on student comments about feeling unsafe, and said that safety should be the community’s priority. He questioned the necessity of the flag in that process.
“Be careful what you put up around you to protect you, because it sooner or later becomes a jail.” he said. “I can say, without a doubt, that if we would put the flags back up this week, we’d be right back where we’re at 10 years from now, this would be a wasted opportunity, absolutely wasted.”
Even after a protracted discussion that lasted almost an hour, the board took no action, although many members expressed interest in studying the matter further and taking the issue up again at a later date.
The board’s meeting carried on to issues of budget and expenditure, but most attendants and speakers left after the discussion of Pride flags.
Outside, now dark and with the demonstrators gone, a group of students congratulated each other for their bravery in speaking or for showing support by attending the meeting. Despite the outcome of the meeting not going their way, the atmosphere was positive.
“I’m incredibly disappointed with the outcome of tonight,” Corob said. “But at the end of the day, we all have each other’s back. We love like brothers and sisters and siblings, and no matter what we will continue to fight for what we believe in, and we will continue to stand up for people who deserve human rights.”
A walkout is planned at Morgantown High School at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28.