BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN No one from Delano Public Schools ordered teachers to remove rainbow-colored signs with the words “DIVERSE, INCLUSIVE, ACCEPTING, WELCOMING, SAFE SPACE FOR EVERYONE,” Superintendent Matt Schoen and Delano Teachers Association President Jeremy Wenzel have confirmed.
“No, the teachers were never directed to take the signs down,” Schoen said.
Wenzel said the union distributed the signs to all district faculty starting May 1. After Schoen received 10 to 20 calls from parents expressing concern over the rainbow aspect of the posters, he met with Wenzel the afternoon of May 3. (Some of the concerns are shared in a letter to the editor posted in the Opinion section.)
“We talked through it,” Wenzel said. “He was frustrated with where this came from. I know some of the comments administration was getting were confusion. The main word was there was a gay pride agenda behind it or a special interest group involved.”
Wenzel said he categorically denies that allegation.
“This was teacher-led,” Wenzel said. “There was no pressure to put them up or not put them up. If they wanted to change them, they could. That’s what the executive council (of the union) had chosen to distribute so we could all have the same language in our classrooms and be united.”
After his May 3 meeting with Schoen, Wenzel concluded that faculty could keep the signs up and that union representatives would meet with Schoen Tuesday to discuss the signs and how to move forward to address diversity within the schools.
However, a May 4 email from Schoen gave some faculty members the impression that the union had not followed district policy in distributing and displaying the signs.
“I had sent out an email last Thursday reminding everyone in the district there is a certain protocol to follow when distributing and posting non-school-sponsored materials,” Schoen told the Delano Herald Journal.
In the email, Schoen said the district appreciated the willingness of teachers to communicate regarding diversity.
“The concern is that the district was not included in the conversation, thus making the materials ‘non-school sponsored,’” Schoen wrote.
He linked the policy to the email and said, “I’ll let you draw your own conclusions if the policy was followed in this case.”
His email acknowledged that he and the building principals had received a number of phone calls and emails expressing concerns as to the meaning of the signs.
“The theme of the concern expressed is, ‘Does the rainbow symbol represent all groups of people as it welcomes a safe space for everyone?’” Schoen wrote, adding that the district had no stance on the signs at that time.
“The administrators have tried to convey to concerned parents the purpose of the signs but have been frustrated as we were not aware of the signs in the first place,” Schoen wrote.
He wrote that he believed the situation could have been handled better.
“I don’t want to discourage the great intentions of our teachers, but I believe there is a much more universal approach that should include multiple stakeholders from our district community,” Schoen wrote, before concluding that he looked forward to meeting as a group to discuss the signs.
Wenzel confirmed that many faculty members were under the impression that the signs needed to be taken down, and that he personally responded to that impression by email the next day.
Despite that clarification and the impending meeting between Schoen and the union, the Star Tribune published an article titled “Delano schools want diversity signs removed after parent pushback” Tuesday morning. After the article was posted in the Delano MN Community Posts Facebook group, it garnered more than 360 comments until commenting was turned off shortly after Schoen sent an email to all parents throughout the district.
“The intent of these signs is to communicate the message of providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students,” Schoen wrote. “Moving forward, our entire educational team will work together to achieve this mission. All necessary procedures and protocols will be followed with regards to posting of information in classrooms and other spaces in our schools.”
Schoen expounded on that policy in an interview with the Delano Herald Journal.
“The student or employee has to give the principal 24-hour notice in requesting to post a sign that is non-school-sponsored, and the principal or administrator has to make a decision one way or another,” Schoen said, noting that most, if not all, schools in the state have the policy, which is drafted by the Minnesota School Board Association.
Wenzel acknowledged that the union did not follow that policy.
“We know there are signs around the district now that don’t go through that policy. It’s not something strictly adhered to,” Wenzel said. “We did not think this would cause a huge stir amongst the district . . . We thought we were following policy regarding diversity, teachers want this, and we were told to have conversations and work together.”
Wenzel said the union’s executive council began looking at sign designs after Director of Teaching and Learning Joe Vieau presented about the district’s diversity initiative, following the racist vandalism and burglary of a black family’s home March 12.
After distributing the signs, Wenzel said he received positive feedback, noting that other school staff and students asked for signs.
“The answer was ‘No,’ because this was for educational staff and those who were part of the union,” said Wenzel, who verified that the signs were paid for exclusively with union dollars.
Even after the recent media attention, Wenzel said the response he has received has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve gotten emails from all over the state,” Wenzel said Wednesday. “Most are pretty positive: a lot of thank-you notes on wanting to make sure all students feel welcome in the classroom.”
He repeatedly said that was always the intention.
“All teachers’ aim is to make sure everyone feels welcome,” Wenzel said.
He said that showing support for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and questioning students was a part of the union’s considerations when selecting the sign’s colors.
“You hear students make comments about students regarding homosexuality pretty often,” Wenzel said. “We need to make sure those students, oftentimes at risk for suicide, . . . are protected.”
He later added that he did not want to disregard the minority experience in the school, noting, “The rainbow is seen as inclusive of all, not just LGBT students.”
He said other color schemes were considered for the signs, but he does not anticipate a change.
“I know we had that conversation,” Wenzel said. “ . . . There are a lot of staff members who are passionate about keeping the rainbow because it’s a symbol of inclusion.”
English teacher Joe Lawrence said he had a rainbow-colored “Celebrate Diversity” sign on his classroom wall for six years with no pushback.
He has since received negative feedback after being quoted in the Star Tribune.
“We’re fielding a lot of these and we’re actually having a conversation, which is a good thing,” Lawrence said.
Despite differences in opinions throughout the community, Lawrence is hopeful that students and community members can achieve a positive outcome by working together.
“All we’re trying to do here is make sure all the kids in the school treat each other well,” Lawrence said. “Amidst all this division, we can come together.”