Superintendent says LGBTQ pride flags not replacing US flags in classrooms

An LGBTQ pride flag hangs in a classroom at Banks High School. Skyler LaMotte, a senior at the school, says it's about a quarter the size of an American flag also displayed in the classroom. (Courtesy Skyler LaMotte).

BANKS, Ore. (KATU) - Jeff Leo, the superintendent of the Banks School District in Washington County, wants the public to know that LGBTQ pride flags are not replacing American flags in classrooms at Banks High School.

He put out a news release after controversy erupted over the issue on Friday when he said a parent went on a radio show falsely claiming a pride flag had replaced a U.S. flag in a classroom.

Leo also said pride flags are allowed on campus but certain other flags are not.

"Previous case law has established that Confederate flags can be considered hate speech and are therefore not allowed on school campuses (unless their display is part of a related unit of study, of course)," he told KATU via email on Tuesday.

He said a handful of Banks High teachers are displaying pride flags in classrooms.

Critics oppose the practice, with one parent telling KATU it violates the district's own policies against teachers campaigning for controversial political causes in the classroom.

"This is NOT about discrimination of students' rights," the parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said via email. "It is about the teachers hanging a biased, opinionated, sectarian belief symbol in their classrooms and handing out pins to students that say the same thing."

The parent said a student had testified that a teacher took down an American flag and replaced it with a pride flag, a claim Leo denies.

"This isn’t a political statement, it is a statement about teachers wanting to support students that they serve," Leo said in response. "The LGBTQ community is a recognized protected class by federal law. No, an American flag was not taken down by a teacher and replaced by a rainbow flag. There have not been pins being handed out by teachers."

Leo said the district follows state law, which says a suitably sized U.S. flag must be displayed in each classroom in each building under control of the state board of education.

Tricia Yates, a spokeswoman for Oregon's Department of Education, added that "the law does not prohibit other flags from being displayed in a classroom."

"At Banks School District, it is our goal to create an environment where all students feel welcome, safe and supported," Leo said in his news release on Monday. "We are following our school board policies and Oregon state law. These explicitly state no student shall be discriminated against in a school setting."

Skyler LaMotte, a senior at Banks High School, remembers coming out as bisexual after he moved to the town from Forest Grove in eighth grade.

"It was scary. I didn't know anybody coming into Banks," LaMotte explained. "I was bullied. It didn't bother me too much because I know not to listen to it and take it to heart. ... The community members didn’t seem to show too much of an effect. I’m still singing the national anthem at our school. Nobody seems to care.”

But he said seeing the LGBTQ pride flag on display in his government and economics class means something to him.

He said it's about a quarter the size of the American flag also hanging in that classroom.

"Knowing that there's a teacher here who acknowledges that there are kids of different sexualities and genders," LaMotte said, "it really makes me feel just homelike."

After Leo's news release was posted on the high school's Facebook page on Monday, several people commented, including one woman who wrote:

"I thought the flag of the United States of America represents We the People and those that died to protect our freedom. All US citizens be they gay, straight, any color, of any religious denomination, etc. This social justice movement separates and divides people. United we stand, divided we fall. Enough. One flag is all this country needs."

Another person wrote:

"There needs to be no other flag in public schools except the American flag. Other flags should be displayed in the privacy of your own home, not a class room (sic). I vote to have it removed ..."

Others supported Leo's statement.

“The (rainbow) flag has more meanings than just gay pride. It shows that love is love. Everyone should be treated equally," said LaMotte. "The fact that people feel that it is not just and not American makes me feel just a little unwelcome.”

Conner Reed told KATU he graduated from Banks High in 2014. He said he was not bullied after coming out as gay -- also in eighth grade.

"I'm glad that Banks is not a place of outward homophobia," Reed said. “I also didn’t face any outward support. There was no one telling me, ‘Hey, you’re good. It's OK.’ ... If one teacher had put up a pride flag it would have been such a lovely moment for me growing up.”

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