By Sam Schultz
A three-hour Connetquot Board of Education meeting, attended by hundreds of students and parents, turned turbulent at times Oct. 11 after the Suffolk County school district banned all flags except the American, New York State and “curriculum-based” flags.
The move followed parental complaints that certain students were “feeling uncomfortable” after Connetquot High School math teacher Sarah Ecke displayed a LGBTQ Pride Progress flag at the front of her classroom.
The flag adds black, brown, light blue, pink and white to the traditional rainbow-colored LGBTQ flag, shaped into an arrow on its lefthand side, according to LGBTQnation.com. The black and brown represent marginalized LGBTQ people of color, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS and those who have died from of HIV/AIDS complications. The light blue, pink and white represent the transgender community.
According the district, Ecke, who advises the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, declined to remove the flag when asked to do so by officials.
District officials suggested the flag be displayed only during the meetings of the Gay-Straight Alliance. The suggestion, however, “was refused by the teacher, as was the district’s offer to install a sign stating, ‘This is a safe space to be who you are’ in the classroom,” said School Board President Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno.
As a result, district officials elected to enact Policy 1310, which states, “School employees shall not engage in political activities on school premises.” Thus, officials said, only the American flag, state flag, and curriculum-based flags can be displayed in classrooms.
Speaking on behalf of the school district, Napolitano-Fruno said in a statement, “Please be assured, it was never the district’s intention to create a perception that our schools are not safe and welcoming spaces for all. In fact, our work to implement alternative solutions is proof of the opposite.”
Napolitano-Fruno added, “Each of our children deserve a school where they are safe, comfortable and respected, regardless of what race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation they espouse to, and we look forward to continuing to support one another as such.”
“The district is aware of the mixed perspectives surrounding the display of the Progress Pride flag displayed in a classroom. Schools must remain neutral and safe learning spaces for all students and staff, and while we respect individual personal beliefs, the classroom is not the appropriate setting to express these views, especially if they create a disruption to the educational environment. Any materials or conversations that violate this mission are prohibited within our schools. The district has offered alternate solutions, which were rejected by the teacher, and we continue to work to resolve this issue.“
Students Marissa Freeman and Jack Loubier, Connetquot High seniors, stood at the lectern and expressed their dismay over the district’s decision to ban most flags.
“This isn’t a debate over the colorful fabric. This is a debate over the message — a message that emphasizes togetherness, acceptance and pride,” Loubier said.
Freeman said she had never felt the need to speak at a board meeting because nothing had affected her personally — until now. “We would like the flags back up,” she said. “We would like an apology, and we would like board members who will actually listen to the students affected by the policies in place.”
Meanwhile, Jacquelyn DiLorenzo, of Connetquot, said, “ I know we’re all on different sides here, but I see one race here, the human race and one culture, American culture. There is one flag that represents every single one of us — that’s our American flag.”
With the public outrage, LGBTQ advocates accused the district of violating the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, prompting Dr. David Kilmnick, founder of LGBT Network, to call on Gov. Kathy Hochul to investigate the Connetquot School District’s actions. Three days later, she ordered a probe, according to The New York Post.
“Governor Hochul is committed to protecting the human rights of New Yorkers and has directed the Division of Human Rights to investigate potential violations of Human Rights Law in this matter, consistent with the agency’s mandate,” a spokesperson from the governor’s office said in a statement.
Despite the board’s efforts to keep the Oct. 11 board meeting under control, it was forced at one point to take a 10-minute recess owing to what Napolitano-Fruno called a lack of respect for the speakers. For the full board meeting, see the YouTube video below.
Connetquot residents recently delivered a petition with a thousand signatures to school officials, demanding reinstatement of the LGBTQ Pride Progress flag, according to News 12.