After teachers traded politically-charged messages on school e-mail systems about colleagues wearing safety pins, the complaints started stacking up according to Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson.
“We had employees complaining about employees, we had parents complaining about employees,” said Hinson. “Employees were upset that they felt other employees were pushing their political views on them during their contract day.”
Hinson says some staff believed the pins were a political statement, and if they chose not to participate and wear one, students would get the wrong message that they didn’t care about all kids.
Wearing a safety pin has grown in popularity following the results of the 2016 election. Supporters of the movement say the pins symbolize that the person wearing it is safe for disenfranchised minorities to be around.
Other complaints alleged that students were unwillingly being indoctrinated with political viewpoints.
“We started hearing it from really all angles, to the point that we had to bring some groups of employees together to say that this needs to stay outside of the school,” said Hinson.
SMSD sent a message to staff Monday, saying in part:
“Although wearing the safety pin as political speech is not the problem, any disruption the political statement causes in the classroom or school is a distraction in the education process. We ask staff members to refrain from wearing safety pins or other symbols of divisive and partisan political speech while on duty--unless such activity is specifically in conjunction with District curriculum.”
“Its not a directive where you do this or you’re going to be terminated,” said Hinson. “We’re just respectively asking that you do this and here’s why we’re asking you to do that.”
In response, the ACLU sent a letter to Hinson Tuesday asking the district to reverse the policy. It reads in part:
“The ACLU of Kansas strongly urges you to reconsider the prohibition on staff wearing safety pins. The school district’s current policy sends students a clear signal that not all students are valued or safe at school, undermines attempts to build community, and is vulnerable to a legal challenge.”“We think people have the freedom of expression even at school unless it becomes disruptive,” said ACLU of Kansas Executive Director Micah Kubic. “I cant imagine a scenario where sending a signal that you stand with people that you shouldn't be afraid, that everyone counts… I cant imagine a scenario where that would be disruptive.”
Kubic dismisses the notion that wearing a safety pin is political.
“I think it’s very clear that the safety pin is not a political statement. Is not a partisan statement. It is a statement of principal it is a statement about something that is happening in the country,” said Kubic, “But it is not partisan it is not political it has nothing to do with the election of any one person. “It has nothing to do with any one political party.”
Kubic wont rule out legal action if Shawnee Mission School District doesn't lift the safety pin policy.
“This policy is certainly vulnerable to legal challenge. I think it clearly flies in the face of previous court rulings and court precedent and at the ACLU we always leave all options on the table,” said Kubic.
SMSD believes it’s on solid legal ground by handling the safety pins in the same way it dealt with an employee bringing a confederate flag to a classroom after the election.
Hinson says that employee was asked to stop just like those wearing pins because the school district isn’t at liberty to pick and choose which political symbols are and aren’t allowed. They all are prohibited.
“It’s a no win situation for the school district but when adults are bringing those issues to a school, we have to make sure we’re following the policies that are in place and the law that is in place and we’ve done that very specifically,” said Hinson.
Brian Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.