The calls flooded into Delano Superintendent Matthew Schoen’s office as soon as word got out that teachers were putting up rainbow-colored signs that read, “Diverse, Inclusive, Accepting, Welcoming, Safe Space for Everyone.”
Some parents took issue with the rainbow color scheme, which they felt focused on the gay and lesbian community. In response, district officials informed teachers by e-mail that they could be violating a written policy about the posting of non-school-sponsored material. Now district officials and the Delano Teachers Union are trying to work out a solution.
By late afternoon Tuesday, district officials told the union that teachers could use their discretion in deciding whether to keep the signs up, and Schoen said that staff were never ordered to remove them.
The issue arises during a time of heightened awareness in Delano after a black family’s home was burglarized and hit with racist graffiti in March. Teachers said they put up the posters in a move to make students feel more welcome.
“It moved us in an urgency to create that common voice,” said Jeremy Wenzel, union president and social studies teacher at the high school.
Some union members said they had placed the signs in their classrooms earlier in the year and were surprised to encounter opposition to them.
District officials said the signs did not have district approval. “We do have a number of folks with the community that have a concern … with the rainbow representing one group of people,” Schoen said.
Schoen said he approves of the signs’ message but the district has a policy that addresses the distribution of nonschool-sponsored material in schools.
Joe Lawrence, a language arts high school teacher, said he was part of a meeting of administrators and union leaders Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to move forward.
“We did not do this as part of an agenda,” he said. “We did this as teachers to make sure all students feel welcome.”
Lawrence has had his sign up in his classroom for six years. Since word about the signs spread, Lawrence said several students have come forward to ask him to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the school.
“Kids are feeling better because of what we have done,” Lawrence said.
The teacher’s union had planned on handing out the signs before the March vandalism of the family’s home that shook the city of about 5,700 residents. The incident led to a community vigil, task force and outpouring of outrage.
Mayor Dale Graunke said that the community is pushing for more acceptance.
“The point is to make it right across the board,” Graunke said.
District officials are grappling with how to push for inclusion and diversity in their schools when their student body is 93.7 percent white.
Some parents have reportedly pulled their students out of the district because of prejudice their children have experienced in schools. Wenzel said while the incident in March was shocking, racist attitudes are swirling behind the scenes.
“There is a lot of conversation among the staff of frustration with things we hear students say,” Wenzel said.
Following the March incident, the district held trainings with staff and an assembly to push its message of inclusion forward, said Schoen.
“Diversity is an issue we are wrestling with and working on,” Schoen said.