Summit View Elementary special education kindergarten teacher Sarah Whaley pinned a LGBTQ pride flag in her classroom and refused to take it down after the school district requested she do so. As a result, the district suspended her for a day and removed the flag in her absence.
The local teachers' union responded by encouraging staff to wear rainbows in solidarity with Whaley on Friday. That idea spread to parents and students.
The School District of Waukesha Superintendent James Sebert issued a statement Thursday to staff, students and parents, making it clear that the school district does not endorse Rainbow Friday.
On Aug. 20, the school district issued a letter banning the use of Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Thin Blue Line signage, or "any other posters or materials to the such," from its classrooms.
"Our advocacy for curricular resources and supports for learning are never ending, but our personal beliefs and convictions must stay out of the classroom," Sebert and Deputy Superintendent Joseph Koch said in their letter.
The two said the restriction is consistent with the Waukesha School Board's policy on controversial issues in classrooms "and past practice related to other controversial issues, relating to political stances, religious issues and other non-curricular content."
The letter's message was a subject of contention at school board meetings and has since drawn support and condemnation from local politicians.
The letter does not specifically mention LGBTQ support or opposition.
"I believe that school should be a safe place for our beautiful youth. I believe that children should be able to express their full selves and as teachers we should be fostering the welcoming environment that allows for that," Whaley, the teacher, said.
"The Progress Pride flag is one visual representation of that support for our students of color and our LGBTQIA+ students," Whaley added.
When the district originally requested Whaley take the flag down, she refused. So the school district issued a formal reprimand by placing a letter in her file and asked her to take it down again. She refused.
"I have received emails and have been called into meetings with administrative leaders. For example, in a meeting with Dr. Koch and my principal, Dr. Koch said that the 'expectation' is that I follow district policy set forth in the Aug. 20 directive," said Whaley.
Whaley refused to take the flag down again so the school district suspended her for one day without pay.
"They repeatedly pressured me to take down the flag and I told them I wouldn't," Whaley said.
When Whaley returned to her classroom from her suspension, the flag had been removed.
A 'day of solidarity'
Carrie Kummrow, the president of the Education Association of Waukesha, believed the local union needed to stand in solidarity with Whaley, and encouraged staff to wear rainbows.
"The union decided to do a day of support her her, in solidarity. We sent an email out to members telling them to dress in rainbows, wear rainbow pins, etc. in solidarity with her, and then send her pictures," said Kummrow.
The idea also spread to parents of Waukesha students, and ultimately the students.
The Alliance for Education in Waukesha is a group of roughly 100 Waukesha parents from different schools whose website describes the group as an "organization dedicated to providing a safe, healthy and inclusive environment conducive to learning for all School District of Waukesha students, families and educators."
The group issued a statement asking "all families" to wear rainbows in solidarity with Whaley.
Superintendent Sebert then responded to Rainbow Day by sending an email to all students, staff and parents Thursday:
"We have become aware of a Rainbow Friday event that is being organized for Friday ... We want to be clear that this event is not sponsored, approved, or endorsed by the School District of Waukesha," Sebert wrote.
In response to Sebert's statement, Kummrow said supporting LGBTQ causes is not politics. "Supporting our LGBTQ staff and students is not politics, it is a human rights issue. We can be professional, focus on high levels of teaching and learning, support achievement, and still advocate for equity," Kummrow said.
"Supporting our LGBTQ students and staff does not 'infringe' on the rights on anyone else ... it just assures that all rights are being supported ... not just those of a vocal group," Kummrow added.
Rainbow Day went on as planned. Kummrow said lots of staff and students dressed up in all buildings and there were no issues. Students and staff, from Waukesha and even other states, sent Whaley pictures of themselves wearing rainbows.
"It was beautiful and powerful. I was filled with love and support and hope our youth feel the same way. I was sent pictures and stories from Waukesha along with multiple different states," Whaley said.
"And while December 17th is over, I know this community will carry us forward as we continue to love, validate and advocate for our youth. Because our youth still need us to continue speaking up to overturn the equity sign ban and restart our equity work."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha teacher pinned a pride flag in classroom and was suspended