Shawnee Mission move to ban teachers from wearing safety pins after election causes swift backlash among parents


Saying the symbol has taken on political connotations that could be disturbing to the classroom environment, the Shawnee Mission School District on Friday explicitly forbid its teachers from wearing safety pins on their clothing — a practice that spread quickly after the presidential election as a way to show support for immigrants, members of the LGBT and other vulnerable populations. The district’s move has quickly attracted fierce criticism from patrons.

District spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal said Superintendent Jim Hinson made the decision after the district began to receive complaints specifically about staff members wearing safety pins. Building administrators were told of the initiative on Thursday and met with their staffs at the individual schools on Friday. The district followed up the communication delivered by the principals last week by issuing a joint statement with the National Education Association — Shawnee Mission on Monday. Neal stressed that the district was clarifying to teachers a standing policy, which prohibits disruptive displays of political speech on the school district’s time or property.

“Recent events require us to remind our employees of their rights and responsibilities,” read the joint statement from the district and the teachers union. “As a staff member, you do not give up your first amendment right to free-speech on matters of public concern. However, your communication inside the classroom on school time is considered speech on behalf of the school district and there is a limitation on that speech.”

Reached for comment on the union’s decision to sign on to the statement, NEA-SM President Linda Sieck said the union leadership believed the move to ban the wearing of safety pins upheld the school board’s policy on disruptive political speech.

“NEA-SM fully supports teachers’ right to freedom of expression and will, as always, represent anyone who faces disciplinary action,” Sieck said. “Also, we are committed to being sure all students feel safe at school. Every day in schools all across the district teachers express that message to students. It is our position that this message must be done without making political statements. Board policy prohibits this – especially via school email.”

The joint statement attracted swift rebuke from dozens of district parents in the hours after it was posted on the district’s Facebook page. As of this morning, there were nearly 200 comments on about the statement, the vast majority urging the district to reconsider.

Jennifer Howerton, a district parent, said she was extremely disappointed by the district’s decision. Howerton said the pins are not a sign of protest against the President Elect, but rather a show of support for those who may face harassment.

“It’s a statement that the wearer will stand up against anyone who uses the election as a validation of their white supremacist, or misogynistic, or racist, or homophobic feelings and acts upon them,” Howerton said. “The wearer is a safe person (hence safety pin) who can be relied upon to help. The district clearly lacks willingness to understand this gesture. This is a slippery slope, where uninformed parents can complain to the district, and the district makes a decision not based on facts.”

Neal said that the district’s moves over the past few days should not have any impact on the rights of students, who would still be allowed to exercise political speech like wearing a political tee shirt or a safety pin in the classroom. Those student rights, however, can be stripped if a student’s expression of political speech causes a “substantial or material disruption” of the learning environment.

“If the learning process is disrupted, teachers and administrators would need to intervene,” Neal said. “Absent that, students are able to share their views.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas confirmed on Monday that it was aware of the situation and would consider taking action on teachers’ behalf.

The entirety of the joint statement issued by the district and NEA-SM follows the jump.

Recently a movement to wear safety pins has gained popularity across the nation and in our community.  Individuals began wearing safety pins within our school communities resulting in concerns and complaints regarding political connotations associated with the wearing of safety pins.  The Shawnee Mission School District is committed to creating and maintaining safe schools that foster a culture of respect for all.  Key to this goal is ensuring that our classrooms and school learning environments remain free from disruption.  To assist in clarifying district policies and procedures, a joint statement from the school district and NEA-SM was shared with all staff on Monday.  The statement is written as follows:

“Recent events require us to remind our employees of their rights and responsibilities.  As a staff member, you do not give up your first amendment right to free-speech on matters of public concern. However, your communication inside the classroom on school time is considered speech on behalf of the school district and there is a limitation on that speech.

The wearing of a safety pin as a political statement is the latest example of such political speech.  Although wearing the safety pin as political speech is not the problem, any disruption the political statement causes in the classroom or school is a distraction in the education process.  We ask staff members to refrain from wearing safety pins or other symbols of divisive and partisan political speech while on duty–unless such activity is specifically in conjunction with District curriculum.

Further, the use of district owned devices and accounts is strictly forbidden for anything other than District business.  If you have questions regarding appropriate use, please see BOE policies IIBF and GAT.

NEA-SM and the Board of Education are committed to the safety of every student.  Thank you in advance for your careful review of this statement and for working with all students of the Shawnee Mission community.”

The Shawnee Mission School District has been and will continue to be a district that focuses on taking care of students and making sure that all students feel safe and supported regardless of issues or concerns occurring outside of our schools.