The Shawnee Mission school board got an earful Monday night over the school district’s decision to tell teachers and staff to not symbolically wear safety pins.
Scores of parents, students and others packed the hearing room and asked the board members to reconsider the policy that was implemented two weeks ago.
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The dispute has been brewing since Shawnee Mission School District officials set off a firestorm by telling employees not to wear the safety pins during the workday. School officials cited concerns about possible classroom disruptions from the political symbolism some have associated with the pins since the election of Donald Trump.
The pins, worn by a growing number of people across the political spectrum, have come to symbolize support for women, immigrants, people of color, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and others who had been the target of negative campaign rhetoric.
At Monday night’s meeting, board president Sara Goodburn read a statement that said the district determined that the wearing of safety pins could be considered a political statement. That could be disruptive and interfere with students’ education, she said.
Others who spoke at the meeting said wearing the safety pin doesn’t support a specific political party but is a way to express support for marginalized groups.
“Teachers and staff who want to identify themselves as willing and ready to act (against discrimination) should never be prevented from doing so,” said Susan Patterson of Mission.
While many at the meeting demonstrated their opposition to the district policy by applauding those speaking against it, only 14 stood up to speak at the podium. No one from the audience spoke in favor of the ban on safety pins.
Some speakers were particularly incensed by Superintendent Jim Hinson comparing the safety pin issue to the district’s decision to ban a district staff member from bringing a Confederate flag to school.
“You are wrong, and you are dragging the good name of the Shawnee Mission School District with you,” said parent Jeff Passan of Prairie Village. “The Confederate flag represents hate and divisiveness. The safety pin is love and inclusiveness.”
Hinson said the district made its decision on the pins in conjunction with the Shawnee Mission teachers union — the National Education Association.
He said he had no choice but to try to stop the pin wearing because of the precedent set by the earlier incident, when a school employee hung a Confederate flag in one of the district schools after the presidential election. That employee was made to remove it. Hinson said he had to treat all political symbols the same.
A Johnson County education advocacy group started a petition to reverse the district stance on safety pins. And it gained support from parents attending Monday night’s meeting to question the board.
Parents, teachers, the state office of the NEA and the American Civil Liberties Union all argued last week that the pins are not political but rather about supporting inclusion and equity.
Hinson has defended his district’s decision, saying that some Shawnee Mission school employees had used district email and linked the pins to a political viewpoint. He added that employees who refused to wear pins because they saw them as a political symbol had been accused of not caring about all children.
“Protecting the rights of all educators means protecting the right to respectfully invite colleagues to participate in a symbolic gesture of reassurance, but also the rights of colleagues to choose not to participate,” said a statement the district and the Shawnee Mission teachers union sent to all district staff.
The state NEA office has disagreed with the district’s stance on safety pins and said it would support any teacher who continues to wear a pin as well as teachers who choose not to.
“We want our teachers to feel empowered to allay student fears in whatever professional way they see fit to do that,” Marcus Baltzell, a Kansas NEA spokesman, said last week.
“The disruption starts when the kid walks through your classroom door afraid. It is happening, and teachers have to deal with that.”