Coventry High School teacher forced to remove Black Lives Matter sign from classroom

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Coventry High School leaders forced a science teacher to remove two wall hangings deemed political, including a Black Lives Matter sign, from her classroom before the start of the school year.

Coventry Local Schools Superintendent George Fisk said he and the high school principal told the teacher the signs needed to come down because they were political and did not reflect all sides of an issue.

Fisk said he could not describe in detail the second wall hanging, which was a kind of tapestry with several symbols or expressions he deemed political.

The leaders discovered the signs in the teacher's classroom during a walk-through of the building with three school board members on Aug. 10. Fisk said no students were present and the board members were not involved in the conversation to remove the signs. While the removal of the signs was not discussed at a board meeting Wednesday, Board President Chris Davis noted he and board Vice President Josh Hostetler were not present for the walk-through.

Fisk said the signs were not appropriate for a science classroom because teachers have to remain neutral on politics. Any political signage or discussion must show both sides, he said.

But the principal, the superintendent and teacher failed to identify what the "other side" of "Black Lives Matter" would be, Fisk said.

"We all struggled with that," Fisk said in an interview Wednesday night. "Obviously the opposite side of Black Lives Matter would be something hateful."

Still, he said, the principal was within his rights as the building leader to tell the teacher to take down the signs.

The Beacon Journal has not confirmed the identity of the teacher and has not spoken with her. Fisk said she took down the signs and was not disciplined.

Heated debate about message in political, educational circles

Dozens of teachers around the country have been asked to take down Black Lives Matter signs or LGBTQ Pride flags in their classrooms over the last several years, according to a report from Education Week, while other schools have allowed them, furthering the debate about their nature as either political symbols or gestures of support for students and acknowledgments of the realities of their lives.

The debate is happening along with a broader conversation in Ohio about the role of schools in providing students with a full understanding of history and its ramifications today, specifically as that history pertains to race, or whether that crosses the line into politics or lessons that should be learned at home. Conservative critics have labeled many attempts at teaching history or providing diverse literature as examples of school districts of "indoctrinating" students with liberal beliefs around racial and LGBTQ issues.

Some districts, like Akron Public Schools, have pushed ahead full force with building a curriculum around diversity, equity and inclusion with little consideration of possible political blowback, while still sticking to the state standards and expecting teachers not to push any political agenda. Some districts have tried to walk a line of neutrality, while others have passed resolutions banning anti-racist teachings.

A student walks into Coventry High School in November.
A student walks into Coventry High School in November.

Political discussions are welcome, Fisk said, in a government or history class, but still, teachers have to be neutral and show all sides of an issue.

"I agree that we need to remain neutral on political issues," Fisk said, noting the school's job was to "educate" and not "alienate" students.

He said he would hope all the district's 1,600 student district know they are loved and thought of as whole people without the need to hang a sign.

"I think we do a great job of honoring all of our students," he said. The school district is made up of about 87% white students.

Will other Black Lives Matter displays be tolerated?

When asked whether a student would be allowed to wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, Fisk said "it would depend on the disruption it made to the building."

Cynthia Peeples, the founding director of Honesty For Ohio Education, said focusing on the reaction of others to a message instead of the issues raised by a message itself is "prioritizing the feelings of the white majority."

Deeming a Black Lives Matter sign "political" does the same, she said.

"We see it as a human statement, not as a political statement," Peeples said.

Schools, she said, should be a place where people with differences can meet each other and talk about those differences. To believe schools should be insulated from that is to speak from a point of privilege, she said. Black students, she noted, "don’t have the privilege of separating themselves from the Black Lives Matter movement."

"We feel that educators, staff and students should be able to fully express their support and belief in the dignity and humanity and civil rights of all cultures and communities and populations," Peeples said. "And that’s non-negotiable."

Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Coventry High School forces teacher to remove Black Lives Matter sign