In response to a Black Lives Matter banner at Marblehead High School being removed by an “unauthorized person” and then returned, a School Committee subgroup began discussions about a possible flag policy in the district. At a virtual meeting on Friday, more than 25 people Zoomed in and several spoke.
“The powerful statement of conscience of Black Lives Matter is very important when systemic racism permeates our institutions,” said Mimi Lemay, a mother of three in Marblehead and leading LGBTQ rights advocate.
She continued, “I come to urge the board to unequivocally defend the ability of our schools to display flags that symbolize inclusion and safety in response to the challenges faced by our students with marginalized identities, such as the Black Lives Matter and the Pride flag.
The BLM flag was first put up at Marblehead High a few years ago, as part of a student-led initiative. In 2021, a local woman started a petition to get it taken down, accusing BLM of being antisemitic. Then-superintendent John Buckey, along with local rabbis and social justice activists, pushed for it to remain.
The issue was raised again when someone removed the flag earlier this month. It was returned on Monday, Oct. 23.
Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta then asked the School Committee to consider creating a policy around flags on school property.
At Friday’s meeting, Cindy Tower Loewen, a member of the Marblehead Racial Justice Team, asked. “By not being able to have a BLM banner, what message are we sending to our Boston families? What message are we sending to METCO headquarters? What message are we sending to anyone who is a person of color and feels isolated already?”
Sharman Pollender, who has a senior at MHS, also spoke. “As a person of color… I find that flag offensive. My children do not define themselves by their skin color.”
Nyla Dubois agreed, saying “I feel like all of the flags should come down, there should be no flags. It’s a slippery slope. First you have a BLM flag, then the LGBTQ flag. I know there was an Israeli flag. Maybe there will be a Palestinian flag.”
Hearing from students
Cresta said she was looking forward to hearing from students.
MHS senior Shakayla Baxter, who is a student of color, told the Current, “I was astonished that someone would even take the BLM flag down. Doing it on purpose or not, it’s still upsetting. As a student of color at Marblehead High, seeing that flag up makes me feel like there is at least one person in the school that cares about students that look like me. It makes students of color feel seen in a town that’s predominantly Caucasian.”
School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner, who leads the policy subgroup, said she had done some research on other districts’ flag policies and liked the way the Hadley schools handle the issue.
Hadley’s policy reads: “It shall be the policy of the Hadley School Committee to only permit the flying of the American flag or banners, and the Massachusetts state flag or banners on school grounds, and/or in school buildings.
The policy continues, “Any group/organization wishing to affix a flag or banner on school grounds and/or school buildings must submit a written request to the School Committee. Requests will be reviewed and approved or denied on a case-by-case basis.”
Schaeffner said she would write a draft policy, run it by the attorney for the district and then present it at another meeting.
“We don’t need to rush this; we need to be methodical,” she said. “We’ve got some work to do. There are going to be a couple iterations.”
New policies have to be discussed in three public meetings before they can be adopted.
In the meantime, Cresta told the Current, “There is no plan to remove any banner or flag at this time.”
Schaeffner closed the discussion about the flag policy by reading from a prepared statement.
“Many community members are hurting, and our priority is to support all of them,” she said. “A core tenet of inclusion is that we stand for a community where individuals of all identities and backgrounds are appreciated and respected, and we recognize our shared humanity. We will strive to treat each other with respect and care, even when we disagree. We must support each other’s safety and well-being, as everyone in our schools should feel safe. I am confident that the School Committee, superintendent, teachers and staff are working to support and safeguard our schools while making us stronger and moving us forward. Each of us should strive to be inclusive rather than divisive and to support all of our students in their growth and learning.”