Nov. 4—WORTHINGTON, Minn. — For much of the school year, Jose Morales Collazo, a teacher at Worthington High School, has displayed two emblems in his classroom: a gay pride banner and the territorial flag of Puerto Rico, where he was born. They are emblems of who he is: a gay Hispanic man.
Hispanic/Latino students make up nearly 60% of Worthington's student body. The emblems convey a wider defiant message that no matter how LGTBQ students and students of color are treated elsewhere, these students know Collazo's classroom is a safe, welcoming place.
It ended up creating a ruckus.
The gay pride banner had been a recent addition to his classroom, Collazo said, hung up after he ran into a dead end trying to organize and raise "pride visibility" in the school.
After a group of LGBTQ students approached Collazo about celebrating Pride month in April, during the school year (Pride month is in June when school is out), Collazo said he sought permission and "was immediately shut down."
"I tried to ask for an explanation. It was just 'no.' So then I thought: The least I can do this in my classroom," Collazo said, explaining how the pride banner went up.
Collazo was called into a meeting with the principal, who told him there had been a parent complaint and that the superintendent wanted the pride banner and the Puerto Rican flag removed. The principal told Collazo that he was not ordering him to remove the emblems immediately since the district lacked a policy on flags, Collazo said.
Worthington Superintendent John Landgaard, who asked that the flags be taken down, said flags are allowed in classrooms as long as they're tied to the curriculum and have an educational purpose in mind. Neither emblem met that standard.
"Education is a neutral (place)," he said. "Educators are required to be neutral on sensitive, political topics."
Landgaard said the district is developing a policy to address the flag issue. But even in the absence of a policy, it still falls within his discretion to "ask for things to be removed in our buildings" to ensure a safe learning environment. The district's legal counsel has confirmed that position.
The issue of whether to allow flags — including the pride flag — in public school settings has flared in districts across the state at different times.
It can be a thorny issue for leaders because it involves the collision of two competing but cherished ideals by schools: To create a welcoming environment for students (pro-flag) and to foster an educational setting free of politics (anti-flag).
An examination of a half dozen districts across Minnesota shows that policy and practice are not altogether uniform in this area, although they generally hew to the view that classrooms should be a politics-free zone. To allow one flag to be hung is to potentially open a Pandora's box.
But there are some noteworthy exceptions. Some districts permit the display of foreign flags to reflect the makeup of their student body. The U.S. and Minnesota flags are displayed in schools because they are viewed as patriotic symbols.
Rochester has taken a different approach from many districts. The six-colored pride flag is regarded as a form of official "government speech" and as a message of inclusion within its schools.
Flags can be slippery symbols: How they are interpreted and viewed often depends on the eye of the beholder.
In Byron, for example, educators last year tried to convince leaders to allow the hanging of the Ukrainian flag after Russia invaded Ukraine. Advocates argued it was not a political statement, but a humanitarian one. Byron includes Ukrainian-American students as part of its student body, and showing the flag was seen as offering moral support to them.
But its display was seen as running afoul of district policies against open support of political issues in the classroom. And it was taken down.
"If we allow one flag, it opens up (the district) to a whole bunch of flags," said Byron Superintendent Mike Nuebeck. "It's not that we didn't support the Ukrainian people or support what was going on."
Nuebeck said educators and students found other ways to support its Ukrainian-American students, including holding a fundraiser to send money to Ukraine.
In September 2020, the board of Rochester Public Schools adopted a resolution that treated the pride flag as a form of official government speech. Along with the flag, it officially sanctioned the display of "Black Lives Matter," "Brown Lives Matter," "Indigenous Lives Matter," "All are Welcome Here" and "Stop Asian Hate."
The statement was adopted by the board in a remote meeting at a time of social and racial turmoil. The killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was the trigger, an event that touched off worldwide protests. The pandemic was also in full swing.
Michael Munoz was in the last stages of his superintendency when the statement was adopted. Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel, who succeeded him, said he expected the resolution to generate more controversy than it has.
"Aside from a couple of people at public comment and school board meetings, there has been none," Pekel said. "It has not produced what I thought it would produce, which is real dissent over how that works in practice."
There was an eruption of dissent in summer 2021. During a spate of boisterous, standing-room-only school board meetings, people complained about the "government speech" policy as well as critical race theory and mandatory use of masks.
Pekel said he has not seen a proliferation of pride flags or sanctioned phrases in classrooms or offices across the district. The number of times he has seen the phrase "Black Lives Matter" in the district is "definitely on one hand."
Pekel disagreed that the district is perpetuating a double standard by sanctioning some forms of free speech and not others. He notes that the policy came about at a historically unique moment not only for the district but the country at large.
"The pandemic made everything crazier and more tense, but it was really about (the death of Floyd)," Pekel said. "It was about the idea, it was something that the school board could do to say, 'We embrace these statements,' which they're all positive statements. I know the term 'Black Lives Matter' became controversial for some. If you just read the statement, 'Black lives matter,' full stop, there's not anything that says, 'and therefore, white lives don't.' "
Flags can be disruptive. In Duluth, a student last year wore a Confederate flag on the campus of Denfeld High School, prompting a walkout by students. District leaders said the flag, which they described as "a symbol of slavery, racism and white supremacy," went against their policy, and the student was disciplined, according to news reports.
Adelle Wellens, a Duluth Public Schools spokesperson, said the district prohibits the display of flags on school grounds "except on special permission" of the superintendent.
But there are exceptions. Many of Duluth's schools show flags representing the 11 Minnesota tribes, as many Indigenous students attend its schools.
Moorhead Public School's policies are silent on flags except as they relate to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the "need to display an appropriate United States flag."
Brenda Richman, a Moorhead spokesperson, said one elementary school has flags from all the countries that students come from "as a way of welcoming and providing a sense of belonging." There have been no debates or controversies relating to flags.
Superintendent Joey Page of Austin Public Schools said all content displayed on classroom doors and walls, including flags, must directly relate to the district-approved curriculum.
"Items that are not directly linked to curriculum objectives are not to be posted in these areas," he said.
Meanwhile, in Worthington, the district is working to update its policies to address more explicitly the topic of flags, Landgaard said. The appropriateness of symbols and emblems used in the classroom will still be based on whether they support curriculum goals.
Collazo said there is a "gray area" for the flag debate. The intention of the teacher should be weighed as a factor.
"My intention is for my flag to be a role model and bring inclusivity to the classroom," he said.
After temporarily taking down the flags, Collazo has put them back up. Nobody has written him up over the issue.
Collazo has also resigned from his position at Worthington and has accepted a job at the State University of New York at Brockport. He said the controversy over the emblems in his classroom was "not the reason, but part of the reason" for his departure. He had already been negotiating with the New York school when the controversy erupted.
Yet, a big draw for Collazo was the university's interest in his equity work as an educator. It was a selling point for the school, he said.
"When you have been trying to do all this work for a school district and I constantly encounter rejection, when you have a body that comes to you and says, 'Hey, we have been following your work. We want you to bring your educational expertise, your equity and inclusivity expertise to us,' that is a very attractive thing to do," he said.