There was plenty of passion but little drama Monday night when more than 150 people packed the Shawnee Mission school board chamber, most of them to criticize the district’s controversial policy against teachers wearing safety pins.
That’s because from the outset, the School Board President Sara Goodburn made it clear the board was not going to change a policy about a symbol it believes is “overt political speech” and supporters feel is a neutral showing of support for marginalized students.
“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,” Goodburn said in statement at the beginning of the hearing.
Since the district, backed by its teachers union, announced its position Nov. 17, a chorus of community opposition has decried the policy, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Shawnee Mission is the only school district in metropolitan Kansas City to take this step.
A dozen speakers used the board’s open forum period to criticize the policy before a standing room only audience and TV station cameras. One of the more forceful opponents was Donald Culp, a former Shawnee Mission school board member from 1976-84 who also served as president.
“I believe you are circumventing one of the most cherished freedoms in our country guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Culp said. “The Supreme Court said students don’t shed their free speech at the door and I submit, neither do teachers.”
Culp rejected the district’s allegation that the safety pins were disruptive and harmful to other teachers and the learning environment, observing it was a symbol of inclusiveness.
“I am reluctant to brag I’m a graduate of Shawnee Mission because of what’s going on with teachers,” he said. “Please rescind this obnoxious and unfortunate executive order.”
Jeff Passan slammed district officials for comparing the symbol of the safety pin with the Confederate flag, calling it a “logical farce.” He described the safety pin as a symbol of love, and the Confederate flag as one of hate.
Lisa Provence compared the safety pin emblem to a Block Home, a designated place where children can go if they feel threatened.
“I do not think the safety pin is a political statement, it’s a symbol of a safe zone where people protect somebody who feels threatened,” she said.
Jessica Gunkel said her adopted child from Guatemala is a fourth grader in the district who has come home in tears after being teased by fellow students.
“I told him to look for people with safety pins and that symbol has been taken away,” she said. “I want my child to feel safe.”
Jenna Reddick said she couldn’t understand why the district considered the safety pin as being divisive and distracting.
“If you don’t retract this policy, will teachers who don’t refrain from wearing it face disciplinary action? What will the board to to protect marginalized kids?
“Our children are watching. What will we teach them about love and about hate?”
In an interview after the meeting, Dr. Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission district, said there would be no repercussions if a teacher decides to wear a safety pin in the classroom.
“We’ve asked them not to do it, but there’s no disciplinary action involved with this,” he said.
Hinson said the district decided to issue its policy after hearing complaints from other teachers.
“What precipitated it for us was employees calling us out for not enforcing board policy,” he said. “The issue that caused it was teachers complaining about other teachers.”
Hinson added the policy was announced Nov. 17 with the idea the Thanksgiving break would be a “time out” period to cool emotions.
Those emotions however, were still hot Monday night, at least by the public. The board did not discuss the policy after listening to the testimony and continued with the meeting agenda.
Here is School Board President Sara Goodburn’s full statement delivered at the beginning of the meeting:
The Shawnee Mission School District is committed to creating and maintaining safe schools that foster a culture of respect for all—that means an inclusive and safe learning environment. Paramount to that commitment is ensuring that all employees of the SMSD focus on taking care of students and making sure that all students feel safe and supported regardless of political discussion or concerns occurring outside the walls of our schools.
That commitment is affirmed everyday by our staff, and by our recent communications about adherence to board policy regarding political speech by employees of the District. Our responses to political speech at school have not been limited to addressing the wearing of safety pins. We strive to ensure that District employees remain neutral on all political matters while at work and thereby avoid attempts to indoctrinate students or staff, whether intentional or otherwise, with political points of view.
When the District began receiving complaints about safety pins, the District carefully investigated those complaints. After receiving complaints from staff members and community members that the safety pins were being used as overt political speech by some employees and that those actions were disrupting the educational environment, we coordinated with our teachers’ union, NEA Shawnee Mission, to carefully and respectfully respond. In that collaboration, we communicated:
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.
In reviewing complaints about this issue, the District learned that the speech was being perceived in our schools as political in nature. After collaborating with the exclusive representative of our teachers, we determined the speech was political in nature, or at least carried a significant risk of being perceived as such, and it was disruptive to our schools. In investigating other divisive political speech, the District has responded with similar requests to staff. As a governmental entity, the school district has consistently avoided political expression by our employees to curb any political indoctrination of our students or staff. The school is simply trying to teach our children without endorsing or supporting political points of view.
The Shawnee Mission School District remains committed to our employees, our students, and our community, and that includes maintaining an environment free from political indoctrination, just as is our responsibility in honoring the civil rights of all.