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Marshall Schools gives statement on flag controversy

MARSHALL — Months after controversy over a rainbow flag at Marshall Middle School drew statewide attention and prompted some local residents to threaten a lawsuit, Marshall Public Schools is now giving its official position.

In a statement approved at Monday’s school board meeting, board members said they will not be taking further action on an inclusion project that hung a variety of flags, including a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag, up in the middle school cafeteria. The school board won’t be acting on any community requests or requests from outside the school to hang additional flags or take further action, the statement said. At the same time, the statement said, “We will continue to welcome the community’s input.”

The statement also gave more detail on MPS’s policies regarding displays like the flags.

Earlier this year, a display of flags representing Marshall Middle School students was hung in the school cafeteria. The flags included a U.S. flag and Minnesota state flag, flags of different nations representing students’ backgrounds, and an LGBTQ rainbow flag. Community members packed school board meetings to speak out both in support of and objection to the rainbow flag being displayed. At one of the meetings, an MMS student claimed the school had taken away a student petition about the rainbow flag and removed other flags students had hung on their lockers.

In March, attorneys representing a group of Marshall area residents said they were launching an investigation into whether students’ free speech rights were being suppressed. As of Monday, court records didn’t show any lawsuits filed against the school district yet.

School board members met in closed session on Monday afternoon to discuss the threatened litigation. After coming out of closed session, board members voted 5-0 to approve an official position statement on the flag display.

“We have heard from numerous residents, staff, and students on this issue, and would like to sincerely thank the community for showing its support and reaffirming the importance of our schools in the lives of our students and community,” the statement said. The statement went on to outline both the background of the flag display, and school policies relevant to the situation.

The statement said the middle school created an inclusion project “in order to help connect students, and provide visible identifiers that students could see and would make everyone feel welcomed and supported.” Part of the project was the flag display, which included flags to represent the countries and Native American tribes of students’ ancestries, the U.S. and state flags, and other flags including a Special Olympics flag and the LGBTQ flag.

Under school board policies, MPS “welcomes and provides equal educational opportunities for all students, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, parental status, status with regard to public assistance, disability, sexual orientation, or disability,” the statement said.

The school board’s statement said the hanging of the flags at MMS was consistent with those policies, and is considered “governmental speech” under the law. MPS did not create an open forum for all speech in the school, and the district has the authority to decide what official speech it will make, and what flags or signs it chooses to display in schools, the statement said.

The school board said MPS also has a policy that allows students and staff the right to request to distribute or display non school-sponsored materials on school grounds. That means students and school staff have the ability to ask for additional flags to be included in the display, the statement said. However, the statement also said the school district has the ability to review those requests on a case-by-case basis, and to approve or deny them.

“To help provide clarity on this issue, the School Board is formally announcing that it will not be acting on any community requests or requests from outside the school to hang additional flags or take any further action related to the inclusion project,” the statement said. “Because the school has not created a public forum for speech within its schools related to the flags, the District will be declining to open the floodgates to community requests for additional flags.”

The school board’s statement said MPS had followed up on claims that free speech rights were being suppressed and that there is bullying going on in the schools. The district couldn’t comment on the free speech issues publicly because of privacy concerns, the statement said.

“District administration has followed up on each and every reported incident of alleged bullying, and would encourage any students who feel that they are being bullied to report their concerns to a teacher or school administrator immediately,” the statement said.

“MPS would like to take the opportunity to emphasize that we support all students,” MPS Superintendent Scott Monson said Monday. Monson and school board members said they also wanted to thank district staff, students and parents for their support of MPS.

“Our staff members have gone above and beyond the call of duty to continue to serve our students during this school closure and pandemic,” Monson said.

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