EDITORIAL: A welcome caution flag

The reminder that the creation of new School Committee policies involves a methodical process is a welcome one.

The three “readings” still to come regarding a yet-to-be-drafted policy governing what types of flags or banners can be displayed inside and outside Marblehead school buildings will provide an important opportunity to listen to the community and debate the pros and cons of different approaches to an issue that has roiled more than a few communities across the state and beyond.

While we take Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta’s point that the current discussion is not necessarily about whether the Black Lives Matter banner at Marblehead High School gets to stay, the new policy could have the effect of requiring the banner come down, depending on where it lands.

At Friday’s School Committee policy subcommittee meeting, member Jenn Schaeffner presented the town of Hadley’s flag policy, which reads that before any flag or banner other than the U.S. or Massachusetts state flag can be displayed, the proponent needs to submit a written request, which then is approved or denied on a “case-by-case basis” by the School Committee.

We would be interested to hear what the town’s principals think about such a process. On the one hand, they might welcome being relieved of the responsibility of making what can be a challenging, divisive decision.

However, as suggested by a letter from a Marblehead educator published by the Current, those closest to students — the teachers and building administrators — may be most attuned to their needs and the impact decisions about banners and flags will have on the communities they are trying to cultivate.

Were the Marblehead School Committee to model its policy after Hadley’s, it seems to us that it would be important to supplement it by articulating the criteria that will be used to determine whether a banner request will be approved.

As the current debate over the Black Lives Matter banner has unfolded, we have been struck by voices like those of MHS senior Shakayla Baxter, a student of color, who told the Current, “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.”

A similar sentiment was echoed at Friday’s meeting by Renee Sidman, the former president of Congregation Shirat Hayam, whose Black foster daughter noticed that she looked different and did not feel welcome while attending school in Marblehead.  

The Black Lives Matter banner “would have been a huge, important flag for her to see,” Sidman said.

Any process to approve banners must be informed by the perspectives of those most affected by the decisions: the students and their families.

During Friday’s meeting, Schaeffner referenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shurtleff v. Boston, in which the court ruled unanimously that the city of Boston had violated the Constitution by rejecting an application to fly a Christian flag in front of city hall.

What might have salvaged Boston’s flag policy, the court noted, was if the city had “done more to make clear it wished to speak for itself.”

Wherever the Marblehead school district’s flag policy lands, the district will be “speaking for itself” about its values. The discussions to come will be all about trying to refine a shared vision about what those values are. In a deeply divided world, we do not underestimate the size of that challenge.

Earlier this year, in response to what they called “a disturbing new trend where towns and school districts are banning the Rainbow Flag specifically or flags more generally,” the ACLU and Gilbert Baker Foundation wrote an open letter, explaining why, in their view, such flags and symbols are an important form of protected free speech in school settings to support LGBTQ+ students and instill a sense of community.

“Removing the LGBTQ+ Rainbow Flag sends a message to students, allies, and faculty that this community is not to be celebrated or protected,” the groups wrote. “Such a message fosters an unsafe environment for many students.”

While certain affiliates have regrettably muddied the waters with indefensible comments supportive of Hamas’ attack on Israel, as Baxter and Sidman’s comments show, the same can be said of “Black Lives Matter.”

Schaeffner closed Friday’s discussion of the flag policy by reading from a prepared statement.

“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,” Schaeffner said.

She continued, “We must support each other’s safety and well-being, as everyone in our schools should feel safe.”

Those principles lay a solid foundation for the discussion to come. The devil may still be in the details of whatever policy is drafted. But the process to tackle this challenging topic is at least off to a promising start.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

Leave a Reply