New superintendent’s rainbow flag raises some eyebrows on first day of school at Harmony Elementary
The first day of the new school year did not go as planned for Matthew Morgan, the new Superintendent of Harmony Union School District in Occidental.
Morgan was out in front of the school on Aug. 15, welcoming students and carrying a rainbow flag, just as he had at his previous schools in Petaluma and Rohnert Park.
He meant it as a “bright welcome,” he said. “It is simply about welcoming diversity. It sends a message that all children are welcome here, affirmed and safe, whoever they are, accepted for who they are.”
But it meant something different to some parents, who felt the rainbow flag, a symbol of gay pride, excluded other students or inappropriately sexualized elementary school children. They were quick to speak their minds and, in the resulting brouhaha, one parent, Brenden Dean of Bodega Bay, pulled his children from the school.
Morgan, married, father of three, long-time Sonoma County resident, said he was caught off guard by the uproar.
“I grew up in Sonoma County. I’ve been here all my life. I was surprised. I did not anticipate that kind of response,” he said.
The following day, after hearing the parental objections, “it became clear to me the community needed healing,” Morgan said. He sent an email blast to all school parents, inviting them to two “healing circles,” one Tuesday morning and one Tuesday afternoon.
About 70 parents responded. They sat in a large circle and talked about the rainbow flag and the division of attitudes toward it.
“For some it (the flag) was an affirming expression they had not had before. A few related their shock and dismay that symbol was part of the campus,” Morgan said.
After the healing circles and many supportive comments at last week’s school board meeting, calm seems to have settled at last.
One of the mothers who initially voiced objections to the rainbow flag said the whole flag issue was confusing. She said she values diversity — one of the reasons she loves west county — but didn’t see the rainbow flag as representing acceptance for all school children.
“To me it was a symbol that didn’t represent inclusiveness,” said the mother, who has come under attack for speaking publicly about her concerns and didn’t want her name used. “Where are the flags for children with mental disorders or diabetes or obesity? All our children need representation. They all need a safe space and to feel loved. Why not a banner that says, ‘All children are welcome here. This is a school of love.’”
The mother participated in both healing circles.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” she said. “Some see the flag as a rainbow. Things go deeper than that for others. We don’t have to accept each other’s beliefs and values, as long as we’re working together to make the world a better place. I think this disagreement has brought a lot to the surface, and I trust and believe that a lot of good will come out of this. We all want a better world for our children, and we have that in common.”
Morgan said there has been a significant shift in how the state expects its schools to fulfill their responsibility for at-risk students’ social and emotional health.
Gay students are particularly vulnerable. Some 64% of such middle and high school students surveyed by the California Department of Education last year reported being bullied. Nearly half had seriously considered suicide.
The school’s role “used to be somewhat passive,” Morgan said. “Of late, a lot of legislation has placed a responsibility on schools to be proactive in building a safe environment, to put in place practices that support the emotional well-being of children and their sense of self.”
One such law encourages schools to place a priority on mental health and intervention services and to create a “positive school climate,” a loosely defined term that relates to how connected and supported students feel at school.
In another change, schools now have a legal duty to protect students from discrimination and harassment on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It’s an important issue for us at a school. It’s important to fulfill our responsibility. Schools are responsible for making kids feel safe,” Morgan said.
“It’s important for schools to ensure that every student knows that they are appreciated for who they are — that they are seen and recognized for who they are.”