Upset residents speak out against school district’s safety pin ban
“Safety pins are a symbol of inclusiveness. They are not political.”
This was a sentiment expressed over and over again Monday night at the Shawnee Mission School Board meeting.
Around 200 distraught parents, teachers, and students packed into the chamber, and even spilled out into the hallway, hoping district officials would reverse its recent safety pin ban.
But for them, there was no such luck.
Before the meeting even began, board president Sara Goodburn told attendees that the board was willing to hear residents’ concerns, but the district would not be changing its stance.
Earlier this month, the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) released a statement telling teachers to refrain from wearing safety pins, because the act could be construed as political.
After all, some people see the wearing of safety pins as a protest against the election of Donald Trump for president.
For others, however, the act is seen as a gesture of solidarity against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia.
With the number of hate crimes against minorities and immigrants rising, the safety pin shows vulnerable people they are with a safe person, insist wearers.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, more than a dozen people spoke out against the district’s safety pin stance, with cheers and thunderous applause erupting from the audience each time.
Jeff Passan, a Prairie Village father, specifically addressed Jim Hinson, the SMSD superintendent, at the podium.
“I want a superintendent who understands something as fundamentally simple as right versus wrong,” Passan said, in exasperation. “Hate crimes have grown over the last month in frightening proportions. Every gesture, big and small, that fights it is important. That includes wearing a safety pin, something you have outlawed your teachers from doing. The Shawnee Mission School District is literally the only district in the country to have done this.”
His friend, Liz Meitl, told board members that she was disgusted a symbol meant to be positive was being turned negative in Shawnee Mission.
By banning teachers from wearing safety pins, the district was creating an atmosphere of fear, she added.
“There are parents in this district who are afraid of being deported, there are students in this district who are afraid of the people they sit next to in math class, and now, thanks to you, there are teachers in this district who are afraid they will lose their jobs for wearing a safety pin,” Meitl passionately told the school board.
Fellow Shawnee Mission mom, Jessica Gunkle, agreed.
Near tears, she told the school board that before the election, as a Republican and conservative Christian, she was simply worried about the country headed in the direction where teachers would be banned from wearing crosses.
Instead, the country is headed in the direction of banning teachers from wearing symbols that make children like her son feel safe.
Gunkle’s son, a fourth grader, was adopted from Guatemala.
“Having a child of color has opened my eyes to things I did not previously know about this country,” she said, emotionally. “This election has made me passionate about subjects like this and I know I need to come to situations that are small and tangible and in my own community, to fight this battle for my son.”
She added that by talking to other kids at his school, her son was hearing that he might be deported, which frightened and devastated him.
“As my son would come home in tears, I told him that after the election, he could look for people with safety pins who were educated in what he might be facing,” Gunkle said. “That symbol has now been taken away.”
Upset parents were not the only ones who spoke out against the school district.
Donald Culp, who served on the Shawnee Mission School Board from 1976 to 1984, admonished the current members for their decision.
He told them he believes they are prohibiting free speech, citing a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines, which found high school students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War were protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees.
“I am reluctant to brag that I am a graduate of Shawnee Mission,” Culp told the board. “You are slamming the door on the right of free speech and free expression. This is a difficult time for the board of education because you’re at the cliff and you have to lead and you have to avoid temptation to be led. Rescind this obnoxious and unfortunate executive order.”
After the public hearing, when the board moved on to other business, the pro-safety pin wearers piled into the hallways outside the chambers.
Some were shocked and dismayed about the board’s decision to maintain the ban. Others, however, remained hopeful.
One of those optimistic residents was Overland Park mom Heather Mayfield.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” she told the Dispatch. “Not a single person stood up at that meeting to say they were proud of the district, so clearly those people don’t care enough. I’m hopeful the district will take people’s thoughtful words into consideration and turn them into action we can be proud of.”
Meanwhile, the issue isn’t showing signs of dissipating.
The district’s safety pin ban continues to make national headlines.
It also has the American Civil Liberties Union considering litigation.