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Neutral shade on rainbows: Flag removals prompt questions of Bemidji school officials

Pride flag on an outdoor pole.
Tracey Earick via Flickr
The colorful pride flag's inclusion in public spaces was under debate at a recent Bemidji Area School board meeting in the wake of a "viewpoint neutral" district stance.

Students and staff have noticed the removal of safe space and rainbow pride messages at Bemidji Area Schools under a "viewpoint-neutral stance" implemented by the district.

BEMIDJI — Ninth-grader Finn Jorgensen immediately noticed when rainbow pride flags disappeared from Bemidji High School classrooms, which she said happened earlier this month.

"The pride flag is really just a symbol of support and a symbol of acceptance,” Jorgensen said in a Thursday, March 21, phone interview. “And to remove that is honestly really disturbing to me, because I think often students need visual cues in classrooms to tell them this is a safe space, where they can be themselves.”

At a recent Bemidji Area School Board meeting, several speakers argued for the rainbow pride flags to remain in classrooms in response to the district’s “viewpoint-neutral stance.”

First flown in the late 1970s, rainbow flags and the variations developed since represent pride in the 2SLGBTQ+ communities. (2SLGBTQ+ stands for Two Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and other variations of queer identity and sexuality.)

The district’s stance — while not written down in board-approved policy — is based on legal advice, according to Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson. He said taking that stance requires application in a “uniform and fair matter.”

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson.
Bemidji Area Schools
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson.

“What we did is we contacted our legal counsel and we received advice about how to go about this realistically, in order to avoid the protest and counter-protest type of things,” said Olson in a Wednesday, March 20, phone interview, citing “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” as an example.

“One of my notes they gave to the teachers was we're not going to have conservative classrooms and progressive classrooms. We’re going to have classrooms that teach reading, math and so forth. We're not going to start dividing ourselves based on our own individual teachers’ viewpoints.”

What is considered neutral is coming under some debate, including at the March 18 school board meeting.

“Speaking as a Christian pastor, I find it very concerning that items connected to Christian holy days like Christmas and Easter are permitted, or at the very least overlooked, while pride flags and safe spaces signs in classroom windows and doors are removed,” said the Rev. Emily Papke-Larson, campus pastor at Lutheran Campus Ministry of Bemidji.

Easter decorations displayed at the Bemidji High School cafeteria on March 20, 2024.
Finn Jorgensen
Easter decorations displayed at the Bemidji High School cafeteria on March 20, 2024.

“While these Christian celebrations do have some secular aspects to them, there is no way to fully separate them from their religious heritage or their religious meaning. Allowing these decorations to remain while requiring the removal of pride flags and signs from school property seems clearly contradictory to the intent of ‘viewpoint neutral.’”

Bemidji Middle School teacher Christine Freundschuh said when she first began teaching at the middle school during the previous school year, she saw no semblance of acceptance or pride throughout the building. That changed when she opted to display a rainbow flag in her classroom.

But last fall, that changed. Freundschuh said the discussion around removing her own classroom’s pride flag included a comparison of the district’s viewpoint-neutral stance to a “bumper sticker analogy.”

"In October [2023], I was called into my principal's office, I was given a bumper sticker analogy of how we don't take our personal bumper stickers and place them on school vehicles to show personal opinion,” Freundschuh said. “So my pride flag has to come down.”

Gay marriage has been legal in every U.S. state since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, but students like Jorgensen feel the pride flag in classrooms is especially important in a community like Bemidji.

“In a community like ours, which isn't necessarily the most supportive or accepting, it's really good to know which classrooms are places where you can go and talk to somebody and feel safe about that,” said Jorgensen, who identifies as part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Kat Klement, associate professor of psychology.
Bemidji State University
Kat Klement, associate professor of psychology.

Kat Klement, Bemidji State associate professor of psychology, wrote in an email that symbols like pride flags — whether displayed by a straight and/or cisgender person or a queer and/or transgender person — are known in psychology as “visual safety cues.”

“This is particularly important for 2SLGBTQ+ youth, who are more likely to face bullying, violence, and getting kicked out of their home for being open about their gender/sexuality,” Klement wrote. “[The flag is] a signal to members of marginalized groups that their marginalized identities are accepted and supported. When kids feel safe, they're more likely to be able to do well in school, which is good for everyone, including society at large.”

Superintendent Olson said the viewpoint-neutral stance doesn’t prohibit students from expressing themselves but does restrict what can and cannot be displayed on school property.

“All schools have two different choices on how to go about this. One is to have basically what’s called an open public forum, where anyone can do anything they want. Or we can have what's called a viewpoint-neutral stance,” Olson explained.

"We've taken a viewpoint-neutral stance, which means we don't take a viewpoint as educators. We're not allowed to put up any displays that are religious, political or anything like that ... as a school district, and it is upheld by law. We are not supposed to be signaling our viewpoints as educators,” he said.

Viewpoints that are “other,” like 2SLGBTQ+, tend to be politicized, according to Klement.

“People convey information about their sexual identity all the time in a variety of ways — we just don't think about it much because it's 'normal’ or a default assumption. Wedding rings, using ‘Mrs.’, talking about wedding anniversaries, etc., all communicate sexual attraction to another person, and usually a cross-gender person, but because being straight isn't politicized, it's acceptable,” Klement wrote.

“If the school district was really wanting to be viewpoint neutral, and it apparently does consider being queer and trans to be not neutral, then in a good faith effort to be balanced, married staff should not wear wedding rings, talk about marriage or children, or use ‘Mrs.’ in titles.”

While wedding rings aren’t likely to vanish from married staff members’ fingers, a new bill in the state Legislature may prohibit schools from explicitly banning rainbow flags.

Introduced by Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, HF4273 would prohibit state and local governmental units, charter schools and most postsecondary institutions from removing or banning “rainbow banners, rainbow flags, rainbow posters, or any visual display of rainbows” from the jurisdiction’s property.

“To those outside of the queer community, it may seem trivial to legislate the definition and presence of rainbows. But in our community, depending on the circumstance, the value of a publicly visible rainbow on a doorway or window or classroom is literally impossible to overstate,” Finke said during the hearing. “For many queer kids, a rainbow flag or sticker and the corresponding knowledge that some adult somewhere accepts you for who you are is the only affirmation they receive.”

Affirmation that, according to students like Jorgensen, can make all the difference.

“Pride flags and classrooms have a crucial role to play in creating a supportive, affirming school environment, improving the well-being and survival of their youth," Jorgensen stated at the school board meeting.

“I understand that viewpoint neutral was intended to protect our students and staff members. However, this interpretation is doing the exact opposite. If anything, we're putting more of our community in harm's way.”

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.