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Shawnee Mission schools: Safety pin limit imposed after Confederate flag incident

Chiefs QB Alex Smith explains why he wore a safety pin

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith wore a safety pin on his shirt during his postgame news conference following Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers. Smith was asked why on Wednesday and said it had to do with tolerance and understanding
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith wore a safety pin on his shirt during his postgame news conference following Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers. Smith was asked why on Wednesday and said it had to do with tolerance and understanding

A whole lot of fuss is being made in the Shawnee Mission School District over safety pins.

The firestorm started when district officials told teachers and staff to refrain from wearing safety pins during the workday, partly because of concerns about possible classroom disruptions over the political symbolism some have associated with the pins.

Since the election of Donald Trump as president, safety pins have been worn by a growing number of people as a sign of support for women, immigrants, people of color, Muslims and others who may feel vulnerable to post-election backlash.

But Monday afternoon, the Shawnee Mission district — one of the area’s largest — issued a joint statement with the Shawnee Mission teachers union, the National Education Association, asking employees not to wear the pins.

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Superintendent Jim Hinson on Tuesday explained the district’s position. He said the issue actually started with a school employee hanging a Confederate flag in one of the district schools after the presidential election. The employee was asked to take it down and given an explanation as to why it had to go, Hinson said.

“We have to treat all political symbols the same,” Hinson said.

In explaining the restrictions against safety pins, he said employees had used district email and linked the pins to a political viewpoint. Hinson said employees who refused to wear pins because they saw them as a political symbol were then targeted as not caring about all children.

The statement, posted on the district’s website, said that “individuals had been wearing safety pins within our school communities, resulting in concerns and complaints regarding political connotations associated with the wearing of safety pins.”

Hinson added, “We have had to bring employees together because they were so at each other over political views.”

The district said it is committed to “creating and maintaining safe schools that foster a culture of respect for all. Key to this goal is ensuring that our classrooms and school learning environments remain free from disruption.”

The joint statement was issued to all district staff. And despite calls Tuesday from the community and the American Civil Liberties Union to abandon this stance on safety pins, the district was sticking by its statement.

But the Kansas NEA in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon said it will support teachers who choose to continue wearing the safety pins.

“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,” the statement said.

Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the statewide Kansas NEA in Topeka, said the organization would support any member whose job was put in jeopardy because he or she chose to wear a pin as a symbol of safety and inclusion.

Baltzell said his organization has received communications from districts across the state about post-election bullying and harassment going on among students in schools. He said the Kansas NEA has been told that some students are coming to school saying they are afraid because of the intimidation.

“We want our teachers to feel empowered to allay student fears in whatever professional way they see fit to do that,” Baltzell said. “The disruption starts when the kid walks through your classroom door afraid. It is happening, and teachers have to deal with that.”

If wearing a pin makes a student feel safe in the classroom with that teacher, Baltzell said, the teacher should have the right to wear the pin. By the same token, he added, “if they decide not to wear the pin, it should not be an indictment against them.”

The Star contacted 10 other school districts in the Kansas City area, and none imposed such limits on teachers.

A group of Shawnee Mission School District residents, who established the education advocacy group Kansas Families for Education, has started a petition calling for the school district to abolish its directive against wearing safety pins in the schools.

“It is not a partisan political statement, it is a statement of kindness,” the petition said. “As patrons of the Shawnee Mission School District, we ask the board members to allow any employees who wish to wear their pins during school hours to be allowed to do so.”

More than 250 people had liked the petition on Facebook.

On Tuesday morning, Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, sent a letter to Hinson and the members of the Shawnee Mission school board urging the district to back off its stance against safety pins.

The ACLU letter was sent after the organization on Tuesday morning said it had received dozens of complaints from members of the Shawnee Mission community who were outraged over the limits placed on constitutionally protected speech as well as the signal they said it sends — that the safety and success of all students is not important to the district.

“Wearing a safety pin has become a symbol that the wearer is an ally of vulnerable communities, and seeks to create a safe space for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation,” the ACLU letter said.

Kubic, in a later interview Tuesday, said the Confederate flag and the safety pins are two separate issues.

“It is very clear that a Confederate flag in school would be disruptive,” Kubic said. “But the pin is not a political statement; it is being worn by people all across the political spectrum.

“With all due respect Mr. Hinson, you are mistaken in ascribing a political motive to the pin,” he said. And “there is nothing disruptive by saying all students are valued and have allies.”

In conclusion, Hinson said that he, the district, the Shawnee Mission NEA and the district’s board of education “are committed to the safety of every student.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

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