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Home > Featured > School district reviews policy that prohibited staff from discussing Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+

School district reviews policy that prohibited staff from discussing Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+

By Sudhiti Naskar
Published: Last Updated on
A Pride-themed sign displayed at a Black Lives Matter peace vigil in downtown Reno on June 7, 2020.

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The Washoe County School District (WCSD) committee meeting Tuesday on board policy 1310 had the district reversing its prior stance on allowing Black Lives Matter (BLM) and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom.

The school district previously insisted such activities as having rainbow flags in a classroom were prohibited as “political speech.”

After months of upholding the board policy, the district’s legal counsel was finally able to state that the teachers can have discussions about these issues. And there is nothing in this policy that actually prohibits such a practice.

Statements made at the district’s Feb. 9 board of trustees meeting, while discussing an anti-racism resolution and “brave spaces,” foreshadowed this decision.

Following a nationwide Black Lives Matter movement after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, the school district was forced to take a hard look at discussions on issues of racism, discrimination and bullying.

Student communities such as WCSD4Change, teachers, parents and administrators engaged with the district to focus on the need for creating a more inclusive, compassionate environment for students.

Neil Rombardo, chief legal counsel for the Washoe County School District. Image: WCSD.
Neil Rombardo, chief legal counsel for the Washoe County School District. Image: WCSD.

They demanded a curriculum that recognizes the diversity and histories of people of color and ethnicities in Nevada and America, and they argued it’s a fallacy to tag discussion of LGBTQ+, Civil Rights and BLM issues as “political.”

During the committee meeting, WCSD General Counsel Neil Rombardo said that such an interpretation created misunderstanding and controversy around the policy. As the legal team checked the history and purpose of the policy in partnership with the department of Civil Rights Compliance, “It became apparent to us that board policy 1310 expanded beyond the scope of its intended purpose when it started redressing the speech of employees and political activity of employees,” he said.

The original intention of board policy 1310 was to prohibit political candidates from putting signs or symbols on the school premises and use them as a place to campaign. The policy that provides guidelines for political activities of staff is board policy 4500, which “somehow morphed into 1310,” added Rombardo.

“We have pulled it out,” he said, adding that confusing parts of board policy 1310 are going to be deleted and parts of it will be addressed in board policy 4500 concerning political activity of staff.

According to Rombardo, 1310 is about management of property in context to political signage and symbols, and 4500 is about management of staff concerning political activity.

Unlike before, from now on when the district enforces policy 1310 it will have consequences on the property and not staff. Policy 1310 alone will not prohibit staff from discussing social and political issues with students in a healthy and proper manner.

What’s at stake?

As drafting policies is always difficult, the committee has decided to have robust discussions on various aspects of the policy.

Some of the discussions concerned the meaning of a political act.

The district’s legal counsel has drawn from the federal Hatch Act to come up with a clear-cut definition of what constitutes “political activity.” In its draft, the legal team defined political activity as “any activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate or political office, political group, political organization, political issue, ballot initiative, bill, petition or any other matter currently before the state legislature or local government agency.”

It further defines a political group as “a group of people that assembles together in order to promote a common ideology and achieve particular objectives in the public, governmental sphere.”

Trustee Kurt Thigpen said that such a definition might interpret groups like LGBTQ+ as a “political” group and run counter to the district’s resolution that discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, ethnicity will not be tolerated.

Thigpen suggested that identity and culture-based groups should not be classified as political, expressing his concern that such a classification could lead to them being prohibited from celebrating things like Back History Month or LGBTQ month.

Jeff Church

“I need to think that through,” said Trustee Jeff Church. “We are talking [about allowing] the rainbow flag but not the Confederate flag. What if a Latino group wanted to put up the Mexican flag? … So, I am reaching out to Mr. Rombardo, so we don’t vote [on] a slippery slope and run into problems or marginalize other members of the community.”

“Well I am under the belief, unless the board decides otherwise in some other policy and regulation, that the Confederate flag is not part of your inherent upbringing… The Confederate flag is hate speech,” responded Rombardo.

“What about the former Alabama flag that had the Confederate in the corner?” quipped Church. “I am just worried about the slippery slope.”

Rombardo said he felt that allowing identity and culture based flags and related topics have a place in board policy 4500 and not 1310. Even then, the members felt it important to have a detailed discussion on the issue.

The main question at this point was how to respond to students’ demand for inclusivity and equity? How to support identity-based and historically marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ and Black students while also prohibiting an identity-based group that professes supremacy to run amok?

Board President Angie Taylor weighed in.

“Do we want to be inclusive? Absolutely! Do we want to open ourselves up to [a situation], well, ‘I identify as white therefore I am a white supremacist fan?’ she asked. “Anybody supremacist is bad, but if we start looking at groups and people’s identity, whiteness is an identification too. It’s not necessarily negative, but it certainly can be.”

Taylor further noted that the district will need to continue to work on understanding and defining these issues. Later in the discussion she added that if identity-based student groups are threatening and marginalizing other groups then she would be concerned about the safety and diversity of other students.

“We want to support students but we need to recognize there’s this whole piece of it. We need to work on it,” she said.

Harvard Professor Joan Donovan, who studies supremacist groups and their online movements, once explained how white supremacist groups have rebranded their hate-filled agendas to look acceptable amid their supporters. Part of the KKK’s process was “continually rebranding how their movement saw themselves. In the late ’60s they were calling themselves the American Nazi movement. Then they switched to talking about a white power movement.”

Trustee Ellen Minetto said that looking at flags is part of students’ education and when they are learning about Spanish or Mexican history, they can and should be able to see a flag. But, for all other times, the district should sport just American and Nevada flags.

Will the district allow discussion on abortion, the death penalty, or political signage?

There were also discussions about which topics can be discussed during school hours. Church asked what happens if some groups are allowed to talk about issues like abortion, Middle East peace and policing.

“What we would not allow is for a group to come onto our campus… and be pro-death penalty and pro-abortion or anti- whatever the case may be. That doesn’t mean we are not going to teach about these difficult issues in an appropriate curriculum and allow for healthy debate,” Rombardo responded.

The committee also discussed that most political signages will not be allowed on district property or school campuses. The district might allow bumper stickers on a personal vehicle, but large political signs painted on the side of a truck will not be allowed.

“There will be grey areas,” added Rombardo. And on those occasions, the superintendent will need to make a decision. But, when a district property has been rented out for a political event, with the express approval from the district, organizers can use political signage, temporarily.

The board will have its next meeting in two weeks for the community to weigh in on the proposed changes.

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