‘Why can’t I feel safe?’ Students speak out against removal of pride flags at Hurricane High

By: - September 7, 2023 6:00 am
A woman holds a white sign with black lettering that says, "DIVERSE INCLUSIVE WELCOMING SAFE SPACE FOR EVERYONE.”

Wendy Fife, a math teacher at Hurricane High School, brought to the Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, Putnam County Board of Education meeting one of the posters she was instructed to take down. Fife said the signage is important for students who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or identity but don’t have a support network at home. (Kyle Vass | ACLU-WV)

The rainbow-colored signage with inclusive messaging that sophomore Brook Brown sees in her teachers’ classrooms gives her a “sense of safety and support” while at Hurricane High School.

The openly gay student was one of dozens of people who packed the Putnam County Board of Education’s Tuesday meeting to speak on a policy interpretation by Hurricane High Principal Joshua Caldwell that would order teachers to take down pride flags and other signage meant to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.

The move comes as school systems nationwide face mounting political pressure to limit what their students are exposed to in classrooms, including topics of sexual orientation, identity and race. In West Virginia, the pressure has come in the form of book ban attempts and — in at least one other county — the banning of LGBTQ+ pride materials.

Putnam County school district policy 4.24(c) bans any materials that “advocate” for political candidates, “issues or a particular point of view” in classrooms. It’s not a new policy, but it is the first time it has been interpreted to include pride flags and “safe space” posters. Micah Osborne, spokesperson for Putnam County Schools, said the implementation of the rule is not limited to those materials.

Osborne did not respond to a request to clarify what candidate, issue or point of view the targeted signage was considered to be advocating for, but instead said the removal of signs was “not directed at any particular issue or point of view.”

The removal of the materials — specifically the pride flags and safe space signage — is also putting the West Virginia arm of the American Civil Liberties Union on alert.

​​“The existence of LGBTQ+ people is not a partisan political matter, period. The removal of inclusive symbols from Putnam County schools is a violation of teachers’ free speech rights and creates a potentially hostile learning environment for students,” said Billy Wolfe, communications director at the ACLU-WV. “School boards in other states have attempted similar moves and lost in court. We urge officials to reconsider their position, and we are keeping all options on the table going forward.”

Of the 21 people who spoke Tuesday — which included parents, community members, students and teachers — 14, including Brown, were against the enforcement of the policy.

“I don’t understand why my existence and [that of] other kids like me is political,” Brown told school board members. “Being gay is not a choice — that’s not up for discussion. It’s a fact. Why can’t I feel safe in an environment I have to be at every day? You guys are taking away the one thing that provides that sense of safety.” 

After the meeting, Brown stood in the hallway of the Putnam County School Board office with seven of her Hurricane High classmates. They were angry, hurt and disappointed to be at the meeting “defending their right to feel accepted and supported,” as one senior said.

Brown said a majority of her teachers have some sort of signage in their classrooms like pride flags and safe space posters, which can be anything a teacher puts up to let students know they can be a trusted and accepting source of support if needed.

When students hear slurs or witness identity-based attacks on marginalized students, Brown said the signage lets them know they can report the incident to a staff member who will take it seriously. 

“What happens if someone calls me a slur or I get hate-crimed in some way and I don’t know what teacher to go to?” Brown asked school board members. “I should not have to feel unsafe [at school].”

Evan Mann, an openly gay sophomore at Hurricane High School, told board members that LGBTQ+ students are “bullied and criticized” at their schools every day.

“This administration is using a policy to push a narrative that acceptance and inclusivity for all students is a political matter when it’s not,” Mann said. “I’m asking you to let teachers at my school set up posters in their classrooms to let people know what classrooms are safe, inclusive, diverse spaces for everybody. What is wrong with that?”

The same policy manual that’s being used to remove the signage, Mann said, also has policies to prevent bullying within schools. He questioned what school board members were doing to support students who were suffering from those policy violations.

Mann doesn’t think the critics of the pride flags and safe space posters — which included several parents and at least one Putnam County educator, Matthew Sparks — understand what queer students like him and his friends are fighting for.

“Everyone in there that is mad is angry because they don’t feel like they’re included, but they are,” Mann said. “When we say we want a safe space, that we want to feel safe at school, we want that for everyone and it applies to everyone.”

Wendy Fife, Mann’s mom who is also a math teacher at Hurricane High School, said the signage is important for students who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or identity but don’t have a support network at home. She brought to the meeting one of the posters she was instructed to take down: a white paper with black lettering that reads “DIVERSE INCLUSIVE WELCOMING SAFE SPACE FOR EVERYONE.”

“We all know that some of these kids are dealing with not great home situations, and having an adult they can trust — even just one — is critical,” Fife said. “That poster in my classroom is a sign to them. It says ‘hey, I’m here if you need me, you can trust me.’”

Most of Fife’s colleagues were “very upset” when they were told to remove the signs, she said. They want to focus on teaching and helping their kids, not fighting a politically-motivated culture war.

Those speaking in favor of the policy to remove the signs on Tuesday said they didn’t believe a school lesson was the appropriate place for students to discuss sexual orientations or identities. Fife agrees, and said the signs allowed her to signal to students they can talk to her without diverting attention away from the day’s lesson. 

“I teach math, and that’s what I want to be doing — teaching math. In our lessons, I get to know my students as an educator and I see how they learn,” Fife said. “We want to be focusing on education, and something as simple as a flag or a poster lets kids know that — outside of that — if things are hard, we’re here for them.”

And things are often difficult for LGBTQ+ students. Fife has seen it firsthand, and so has Mann, Brown and their Hurricane High School friends. They know kids who are LGBTQ+ and struggling with depression and anxiety, which affects queer youth at higher rates than their straight, cisgender classmates. They have been bullied and lost friends due to their sexuality. Brown said she’s been physically assaulted because she is gay, a statistic that also applies to LGBTQ+ students more often than their heterosexual counterparts.

According to the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth, more than 45% of children who identify as LGBTQ+ have had suicidal ideations in the last year. Fourteen percent of them have attempted suicide. Both those rates drop significantly when there are support structures in place for them at schools and in homes.

In West Virginia, fewer than 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ students surveyed in 2017 by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported that their school’s administration was supportive of queer students. 

Karen Wicker, who has grandchildren attending Putnam County schools and whose adult son is gay, said she wishes that teachers had some sort of poster or sign in her son’s classroom when he was growing up. He didn’t come out to her until junior high. She would have felt better knowing there was some adult in his life he felt comfortable talking to about any struggles he was having.

“He had a rough time in school, and I think a lot of kids do who are going through that — coming out and learning who they are,” Wicker said. “With a pride flag or poster up, I think it makes students think twice about how they treat those around them. It says that teachers are watching, that hate won’t be tolerated.”

The Putnam County School Board didn’t take any action Tuesday on the enforcement of the policy to remove the signage. Brown, Mann and their friends, however, are on watch. In Monongalia County, where a new policy was implemented last year to ban the placement of pride flags in schools, students organized walkouts against the rule to ensure administrators knew where they stood on the issue.

Before leaving Tuesday evening, Mann, Brown and their six other friends formed a circle outside the school board building, their arms around each other’s shoulders and their heads tucked tight against one another in the middle. They shouted out things they loved — celebrities like Lady Gaga and Nikki Minaj — as they thanked each other and shared messages of support.

“We want [the school board] to know we’re not OK with this. We will not be OK with this, and we aren’t afraid of saying that,” Mann said.

“We just want to feel accepted, to feel safe in this place we spend eight hours of our day — almost our whole lives right now,” Brown said. “I don’t want to be hated, to be not accepted, for who I am. I don’t get to choose who I am, and it’s not fair for [a school board or principal] to take away something that helps me feel supported and safe while I’m at school.”


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Caity Coyne
Caity Coyne

Caity Coyne covers state policy and how it intersects with individuals and communities for West Virginia Watch. She's been reporting in West Virginia for 10 years, most recently covering public health and the Southern Coalfields for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.