When the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, banned "partisan political activities," a middle school teacher was having none of it.
Jennifer Leja teaches 7th and 8th-grade students in the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada. She is the only openly LGTBQ+ teacher at her school and actively promotes diversity and inclusion within her classroom. This year, however, she received new instructions from her school regarding "partisan political activities." The school district stated that it would henceforth ban any paraphernalia and activities that were partisan and political. The policy reads, "Any signage that is displayed on District property that is, or becomes, political in nature must be removed or covered." So, Leja is now fighting back, BuzzFeed News reports.
A school district in Nevada told a bi teacher she can't have a rainbow flag in the classroom https://t.co/EVREo2ynA4— Lauren Strapagiel (@laurenstrapa) September 21, 2020
When she was first notified about the new policy, the middle school teacher had several questions. Therefore, she reached out to Trustee Andrew Caudill in order to ask if "partisan political activities" included issues pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. She asked, for instance, if she could mention she had a girlfriend or display rainbows in her classroom. Caudill confirmed that LGBTQ+ issues were also banned. He informed her in an email, "The courts have held LGBTQ+ issues to be political speech and thus, the rainbow flag [is considered] to be political speech, so it cannot be expressed through clothing and other means, such as displaying a flag in your class." He added, nonetheless, that who she was was "not impacted by this policy, only what is expressed in class through visual aids."
For Leja, on the contrary, the pride flag is part of her identity. The personal is political, and vice versa. "The issue that I have with it is, I don’t think my existence and my identity is a political issue," she explained. "I think that being able to have a rainbow flag is as much a part of my identity as anything else. It’s legal in every state to get married; it’s legal for LGBT people to exist in this country right now, so I don’t see how it's a political issue." Moreover, she knows that this is about her students too. Many pupils have found support in Leja. The teacher shared, "It’s important for me because I feel like there are students who spend their lives in the closet and especially in middle school; that is when students are starting to figure out where they are. They go through that time period where they don’t know who they are or what they like."
To raise awareness about and rally against the unfair policy, Leja took to TikTok. She posted a video about how several rainbows are scattered around her classroom because, as she states in the clip, she just really likes rainbows. She said, "It started off in my first year of teaching with just a rainbow flag; pretty much all of the rainbows added since then have been students giving me rainbow gifts." But it's not just LGBTQ+ issues that fall under the ban. Other kinds of speech, such as Black Lives Matter (which has received much criticism), Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, and NRA, among others, are also prohibited. Caudill affirmed, "It is inappropriate for the District as a government entity to select only speech it agrees with. As a result, it is in the best interests of our learning communities to ask staff to refrain from all single-issue political speech."
The students of Washoe County School District have also fought back. They have since petitioned the board to reverse its decision, and a response is yet to be delivered. Meanwhile, Caudill added, "But I want to be abundantly clear, the policy does not require staff to hide their own sexuality. Teachers can let students know their sexuality, or mention their significant others, if they wish, regardless of sexuality. The policy does not impact who a teacher is, it only impacts the advocacy for a specific political position."