Are Rainbows a No-Go at Leander ISD?

Rainbow flags removed from Cypress Elementary School classroom before first day

Vibrant rooms decorated at a teacher's own expense may be commonplace in elementary schools, but at one Leander ISD campus, rainbows that suggest queer pride appear to be off-limits, and the LISD Board has no plan to put the issue on an agenda for public discussion.

During LISD's districtwide back-to-school open house event on Aug. 15, the mother of a Cypress Elementary School student objected to rainbow flags on the walls of her child's classroom. She complained to school leadership, and by the first day of school, the rainbows were removed.

District spokespeople confirmed the incident and said it was settled between Principal Kristen Alex, the concerned parent, and the teacher. "They were just able to kind of talk it out and I feel like they have control of the issue," said Chief Communications Officer Crestina Hardie. "Superintendent Bruce Gearing was looped in pretty early and had an awareness of what the situation was, but the principal had things under control. Sadly, I can't say anything else," she added.

The tensions over LGBTQ+ equality, America's history of racism, and how these are taught in schools aren't new or unique to Texas. They particularly dominate conversations in Leander ISD, which removed books from its high school reading program after strident objections from activist parents.

"A simple way that I create inclusion in my classroom is by the addition of a pride flag and some rainbows in my decor," an LISD teacher told the Chronicle, asking that she remain anonymous. "So many students come to school for safety, not just education. It's my passion to ensure that my room is a safe space for all. Many LGBTQ people live in fear or in unsafe environments to be themselves; school should not be that, it should be safe." According to the Trevor Project's 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously contemplated suicide in the past year. But LGBTQ+ youth who believed their school affirmed their sexual orientation reported lower rates of suicidality.

Cypress Elementary has not been affirming in recent years, per one middle school student who attended the school from 2013 to 2020. She spoke to the LISD Board directly about the no-rainbow policy at their Aug. 18 meeting. "I experienced discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community during my time there. And I had hoped that after that heart-wrenching experience, the campus would have learned from the situation," she said. "[Teachers] aren't teaching your children anything inappropriate; in fact, they haven't taught your children anything yet – they were disrespected before school started."

Though parents and students brought the rainbow removal up during public comment, the issue wasn't on the agenda. LISD Board of Trustees President Trish Bode told the Chron­icle that these issues are "personnel-related" and resolved at the campus level. If there isn't a resolution, the board discusses it in closed session. When asked to what extent teachers have freedom over their classroom decorations, Bode said she adheres to the district's core beliefs, one of which describes a "welcoming, safe, and caring environment." She said she hopes to "continue to have dialogue and discussion" and hopes "our teachers and workforce feel supported and appreciated."

Across the state, schools are facing severe teacher shortages caused by low pay, overworked staff, and COVID-19 concerns in addition to debates over cultural issues within classrooms. Leander ISD's Lisa Gibbs told KVUE that the district's shortage is unprecedented, and it still has around 80 vacancies going into this school year.

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Leander ISD, Cypress Elementary, Kristen Alex, Trevor Project, Trish Bode

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