Lakeville school leaders have directed teachers not to display Black Lives Matter signs in their classrooms, citing a district policy that bans school employees from demonstrating opinions on political issues at work.

The response from district administrators came after some teachers and principals asked about putting up signs — an action they said was meant to prompt and encourage classroom discussion on current events and social issues. In a memo to teachers, district leaders said that while some teachers may view Black Lives Matter as a broad social statement, the district also sees it as a political message and one linked to "specific political issues being debated today," such as "defunding the police." As such, the memo said, it is not in line with the district's stated goal of maintaining political neutrality. The policy does not apply to students.

"As we continue to experience a highly polarized political environment … it is critical that our schools be places where political issues are not the focus of attention," read the memo from Superintendent Michael Baumann.

The move has stirred criticism on social media and in a recent school board meeting, where a handful of parents told school leaders that the ban on Black Lives Matter signs belies the district's stated commitments to equity and inclusion. They said teachers and students should be talking about racism and disparities and the topics brought to the forefront by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the social unrest that has roiled the country — rather than trying to avoid controversial topics.

"I know these are very sensitive times, and I know that emotions are all over the place," Jermaine Davis told the board. "But if we are going to build future leaders, we cannot sweep stuff under the rug."

Policy previously used

The policy cited in the district's ban on Black Lives Matter signs is the same one that was invoked in recent years when students displayed the Confederate flag at school, and when teachers have attempted to use school resources to distribute campaign materials, Baumann said.

Don Sinner, president of the Lakeville teachers union, said his group believes the district is incorrectly applying the policy. He said that to many teachers, posting a Black Lives Matter sign is a way to demonstrate empathy to students and encourage respectful discussion.

"We disagree that it's political," he said.

Spokespeople for several other metro districts — including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eastern Carver County, Mounds View and Wayzata — said they did not have specific policies on the display of Black Lives Matter signs, nor had school leaders issued specific direction.

Osseo Area Schools spokeswoman Barbara Olson said in a statement that her district expects employees to be aware of students' wide array of beliefs and to be thoughtful in deciding what messages they communicate to students through signs or clothing.

"We also have a longstanding practice that if an employee's message becomes disruptive to the learning/working environment we may intervene to address it," she said.

Educational purposes

A Bloomington Public Schools policy allows for "displaying/wearing politically sensitive items" for educational purposes, but they are to be removed "upon completion of the unit of study."

The Anoka-Hennepin school district permits the display of Black Lives Matter signs for the same reason Lakeville bans them — because they are political and relate to a matter of "public concern."

The district addressed the issue in a Sept. 15 memo to school principals, telling them teachers have a First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern so long as their speech is not offensive, discriminatory or undermining their ability to do their job.

It noted, however, that teachers also need to adhere to district policy prohibiting staff from trying to persuade students or adopt a particular viewpoint.

"Like students, District employees do not leave their constitutional protections at the schoolhouse door," the memo read.

Baumann said Monday that he is open to revisiting the district's policy and noted a variety of equity efforts underway. He said the district is working to strengthen diversity in its teaching ranks and provide more training to staff members on social justice and equity. The school board will soon take up a formal statement on the district's goals on equity and justice, and Baumann said district leaders are working to gather more feedback from students.

After listening to comments at the board meeting, Baumann said he is committed to having a "courageous conversation" about disparities and race. But he said he worries that putting up a Black Lives Matter sign in a classroom could stop that discussion.

"There is a political component to this that stops people from listening," he said. "And I don't want to stop people from listening."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790