The final caller to Lars Larson’s conservative talk radio show on Jan. 5 was Rachel from Forest Grove.
“Our son is a junior at Banks High School,” Rachel said. “He informed us this week that he has two teachers in his school that have taken down the American flag and replaced it with a gay flag.”
Is that grounds for a complaint to the school district? she asked.
Larson thought it was, because a teacher was pushing a political message.
“Let me spitball this one, Rachel,” Larson said. “I’m guessing that the reason the rainbow flag went up is that perhaps the teacher who put it up may be gay or bisexual or whatever.”
Even if he agreed with the sentiment, Larson said anything political in the classroom is inappropriate. Particularly if, as he speculated, the flag was in support of the teacher.
“The school does not exist to meet the needs of the teachers,” he said. “The school exists to meet the needs of your children.”
There are, however, at least two problems with this narrative.
The American flag was not taken down.
And it was never about the teacher.
“It’s for the students,” said 16-year-old Sam Munda, who brought the rainbow flag to school last month. “It was so students knew Banks High School is supportive of them. Having parents upset, that was not my intention. It’s not what I wanted at all.”
Sitting at the local pizza parlor, a giant American flag hanging behind us, Munda expressed surprise that the LGBTQ flag created such a scandal. Since the radio segment aired, parents have complained publicly to the school board, the superintendent sent out a press release denying any American flags were removed, and insults were hurled across social media. An online petition claims the flag should be removed because it “creates a hostile learning environment.” It has more than 100 signatures.
On Wednesday, Munda took to a community Facebook page to clear things up.
“I am a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I was the student who had asked to put up the rainbow flag,” Munda wrote on the Banks Community Bulletin Board group. The flag wasn’t meant to “force any beliefs on any students” or make anyone believe differently than they already do, Munda wrote. It “was not meant in any way to start a war in (Banks), but that is what has happened.”
The flag was intended to signal a safe space for other kids like Munda who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning.
“There are a lot of LGBTQ youth in Banks, which most people don’t know about,” Munda said. Those students told Munda they’re afraid to come out to their parents or friends, “because they are scared that they’re going to get bullied or they aren’t going to be accepted and they’re going to be treated different. And so, having put up the flag, it was a way to say that Banks High School is a safe place and a supportive community.”
Munda grew up in Banks, a small community in western Washington County home to about 1,700 residents, several Christmas tree farms and a 72-year tradition of truck and tractor pulls. Munda is graduating a year early and will study criminal justice at Ferris State University. Munda plans to become a police officer.
Last year, Munda began openly identifying as gender fluid and requesting they/them pronouns.
“I wanted people to start using my pronouns and the only way I could do that was to be open,” Munda said. “I lost a few friends. I used to go to church and was kicked out of church because I wouldn’t change. They wanted me to be a girl and to be straight.”
Munda bought the rainbow flag at a Portland Pride event last year. In December, Munda asked if it would be OK to hang it in the government and economics classroom, and the teacher said yes. The flag was a bit larger than sheet of legal paper.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of space around the classroom so we put it up in front of the class where the projector is,” Munda said. “It was next to the American flag.”
There are now a total of three rainbow flags in three classrooms. Despite some parent complaints, they remain.
In email, Banks Superintendent Jeff Leo wrote the district was following legal advice that state law “allows a teacher to display such items as they are supportive of a class of persons protected by Oregon and federal law.”
Some of the parents objected because the rainbow flag was viewed as taking a political stance. But what stance is that?
This flag is only a political issue if you believe equity for LGBTQ students is still up for debate – and in Oregon public schools, it simply is not. Oregon public schools ban discrimination against sex or sexual orientation.
Racial equality, women’s suffrage and abolitionism are political views, too. We do not debate the worth of these topics in school. We should not debate the worth of gay youth either.
For every nasty online comment posted about the flag, there is a teenager who is absorbing those words.
Larson is right about one thing: The school exists to meet the needs of the children.
And for every adult who heard about the flag and was offended, there was a student who saw the flag and was assured.