A Marysville Middle School teacher was asked to take down this display, including a Thin Blue Line flag and various images, after school administrators looked into a concern about its political meaning. (Contributed)

Marysville teacher told to take Thin Blue Line flag off wall

Is it comparable in educational value to a Black Lives Matter or Pride flag? The school district says no.

MARYSVILLE — School administrators urged a Marysville teacher to take a Thin Blue Line flag off her classroom wall earlier this month.

Supporters of police, including the teacher’s brother, who served on the Marysville force, say they disagree with the directive.

School district policy says district employees can’t use district time, property or other resources for political purposes.

Interim Superintendent Chris Pearson said that when concerns are raised about a political symbol, administrators first meet with the faculty member to assess whether there’s any educational value.

“In any case where a concern is brought like this we want to have a thoughtful discussion with the teacher and ask that question,” Pearson told The Daily Herald. “And to the extent to which that teacher can answer that question — that impacts whether something is political.”

Chris Sutherland, who was a resource officer at Marysville Pilchuck High School during the 2014 shooting that killed four students and the classmate who shot them, said he is the teacher’s brother. He called the district’s move “a slap in the face.”

He told The Daily Herald the flag in the Marysville Middle School classroom was meant to honor him.

“It really upset my sister because she’s not doing this to try to offend anybody, which it shouldn’t,” Sutherland said Tuesday. “She’s doing it out of love for the family and police families.”

In a letter, Pearson highlighted hate groups’ use of the flag. He cited its display at a 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the Capitol riots in January in Washington, D.C.

“The Thin Blue Line Flag can be interpreted in a variety of ways by students who come from very diverse backgrounds,” Pearson wrote.

District policy also protects students’ right “to study under teachers in situations free from prejudice and to form, hold, and express their own opinions without personal prejudice or discrimination.” Teachers should allow students to draw their own conclusions on issues, according to district policy.

“If we don’t go by the policies, then we have no rules,” said Ray Sheldon Jr., Indian Education Parent Committee board member and a candidate for Marysville School Board.

Pearson said any potential disruption to student learning or safety, or staff safety, should be brought to school administrators’ attention.

Black Lives Matter symbols and Pride flags are appropriate in schools because they are in line with the district’s stated goals of equity and inclusion, he wrote in the letter. They can help students “feel both heard and seen by their school community.”

“We want to make sure that we’re honoring everybody and not being disrespectful,” said School Board President Vanessa Edwards. “Two controversial flags that are also being scrutinized right now by people outside of the district — they match up with our values for equity, the work that we’re doing with it, as well as our student groups. These are flags that have direct impact with our students.”

On Aug. 23, the school’s assistant principal expressed concerns about the teacher having a Thin Blue Line sticker on her laptop. The assistant principal also told the teacher that other staff members said it could hurt the work environment. Shortly after, she put up the flag.

The district’s executive director of human resources sent the teacher a letter Sept. 7 telling her to “please remove” the flag by the next day. He added: “Failure to follow this direction may result in further disciplinary action.”

The teacher also had a Pride flag in her classroom. She took both down, Sutherland said.

He called Pearson’s response “completely irrational,” arguing that either all of the flags should be allowed or only the American flag.

Chris Sutherland, a Marysville School District teacher's brother, said the district asked the teacher to take down a Thin Blue Line flag, but permitted a LGBTQ pride flag to remain. (Contributed)

Pearson was named interim superintendent last week. He had been acting superintendent since July.

The First Amendment typically protects teachers’ speech if they are speaking as a private citizen, Kendrick Washington, Youth Policy Director at the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement. This is a different situation, however.

“What is said or communicated inside the classroom is generally considered speech on behalf of the school district,” he said. “The school district has a vested interest in including and supporting students, and the display of a symbol linked to racism, as witnessed in Charlottesville, could be interpreted as government endorsement of exclusion.”

Board President Edwards said the board is reaching out to the Washington State School Directors’ Association for guidance in updating guidelines related to political speech. Two of the three policies guiding the district’s decision were written in the early 2000s.

Over the past year and a half, two separate incidents involving threats toward students of color at Marysville schools have pushed conversations about race and equity to the surface in the district and greater community.

In one case, a student was accused of telling another student, “Let’s kill all Black people,” during an online class. They named some of their peers as targets, according to a police report filed in Snohomish County Juvenile Court.

The other incident, in which a former Marysville student posted an image on social media holding what appeared to be a gun and threatening to kill people of color, led to a felony hate crime charge.

Late this summer, the city of Marysville launched the community’s first Youth Advocacy Committee. Two dozen Marysville students serving on the committee will develop projects promoting inclusivity in the community over the next year.

Denise Miranda-Ramirez, a junior at Marysville Getchell High School, said the committee was created for leading discussions like the one about the flag.

“We are trying to address issues that are hard to talk about,” she said. The committee “was made to raise awareness and make sure students feel safe to go to school and have a place.”

The district also recently launched an equity committee comprised of students, staff and parents. The panel is developing the district’s equity policy, Pearson said.

“I think we as a school community — we need to work together to problem-solve these issues that are presented to us and try to make the best environment possible for students,” Pearson said. “That’s our goal. It’s pretty difficult right now because of the world that we live in. But as a school staff and a group of educators, I think we’re still committed to creating a positive culture for teachers and for kids. And that still is what drives our decisions.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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