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Kennewick school board Pride flag policy gets failing grade

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Photo by Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Photo by Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

In August of last year, the Kennewick school board unanimously passed a new policy on "race and curriculum." Conservative board members feared that critical race theory (CRT) was being taught in classrooms, even though teachers expressed that CRT is a college-level concept and is not a part of the high school curriculum. Unsurprisingly, a Kennewick School District board member has been pushing a new policy concerning Pride flags, among others.

Micah Valentine, who drafted the proposal, said to the Tri-City Herald that he's heard from conservative students and parents that the Pride flag is "distracting." Valentine also said, "The solution to me is to remove controversial issues that evoke strong, strong emotion. Just remove those from the school, so everyone can feel comfortable. That's not the most conducive environment to learn. You don't need that. We need to have a learning environment that's free from distraction and free from division, and it needs to be an inclusive environment for every student."

He said last fall that he wanted to pass a conservative policy, which would be "essential" in convincing conservative voters to pass a levy, which failed twice last year, and schools have felt the resulting financial pressure. (The levy was approved last month.) Whether this policy would be a flag ban was up in the air, but Valentine said in October last year that such a ban would likely include flags of a "political" or "quasi-political" nature. This would include LGBTQIA+ Pride flags.

Cottonwood Elementary School in Kennewick, WA — Courtesy photo  

Carly Coburn, chair of the pro-Gay advocacy group PFLAG Benton Franklin, said this proposal was "very disheartening." Coburn added, "I know that pretty much anytime I speak to youths or adults, when they see a Pride flag, they know they're walking into a safe space and a place where they can be themselves.

"It's not just a rainbow. Red stands for life, orange stands for hearing, yellow represents sunlight, green is for nature, blue represents serenity, and purple stands for spirit. Those are common areas that I think almost all groups can agree are important things."

In November, the school board in nearby Richland sent out a survey to students about non-American and state flags in the classroom. When asked whether flags depicting political movements make them uncomfortable, 82% answered "no." Kennewick conducted its own survey, asking students, "What types of signage do you believe are not appropriate in school environments?" 72% voted that political expression signage was inappropriate, and 35% voted that political movement signage was inappropriate.

There was also the option to write in an answer, and 1% of students said that Pride flags were inappropriate.

In January, when the Superintendent Student Advisory Council read the proposed policy as it was written, members expressed concerns about limiting certain types of speech. They also stated that they don't want flags expressing hate speech in classrooms, and that teachers should be free to decorate their classrooms as they want.

Proposal fails
The proposal — which was originally supposed to give clear instructions on displaying flags that are not American or state flags — initially passed the Kennewick school board 4-1 during the first reading in December, but when voting for final approval was conducted this month, several board members flipped. The vote was 3-2 in the other direction, and the proposal failed. Board President Michael Connors and Ron Mabry changed their minds about the policy because they felt it needed more work.

Connors said, "We didn't make it better. We made it convoluted. We made it difficult to enforce. We made it a mess. Nothing in this policy furthers our academic goals, nothing. So, to go down this road, to me, doesn't make any sense."

He continued, "I don't see what we're doing. We're leaning towards teaching our kids to be intolerant. Going out in the world, all these kids are going to face stuff they don't like — that's just reality. We have to find a way to teach tolerance and acceptance, whether you like it or not. That's reality."

In a compromise, the Kennewick board unanimously voted to update its American flag policy to reflect changes in Washington state law. Board policy now states that every US flag shall be "prominently installed, displayed, and maintained in all schools."

Valentine seemed to backpedal on his original proposal, disagreeing that it would have spread intolerance, apparently referring to the successful compromise flag policy update instead. "It's not suppressing, it's not removing, it's not banning. But what it does is — the language specifically props up the American flag that we all live under," he stated last month.