Controversy roils over proposed LGBTQ rainbow Fluco symbol

Controversy roils over proposed LGBTQ rainbow Fluco symbol

By Ruthann Carr and Heather Michon, correspondents

The community took a stand. The School Board did not.

Scores of high school students and community members packed the auditorium Wednesday (Nov. 7) for the Fluvanna School Board meeting.

During public comments it became clear why they were there: Item “B” on the action agenda: “Approval of Alliance Club request to give out stickers to teachers displaying the Fluco ‘F’ in rainbow colors.”

If they expected the board to act, they were disappointed.

After the board listened for more than an hour to public comments, Chair Perrie Johnson (Fork Union) made a motion to approve the students’ amended request.


No one seconded.

The motion died.

Despite having the request for a month, the board chose Wednesday to do more research and discuss it further with their lawyer.

Their questions centered around whether the school or the public owned the Fluco F logo trademark.

They will take up the request again in December’s meeting.

During the second round of public comments, the community chided the board.

“Your all’s decision was a cop out,” said Ben Fick. “You’re afraid to let the kids color in your logo. It’s an F logo with wings on it and you’re all like ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.’ It’s a cop out.”

The Alliance Club is a school-sanctioned group supporting LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students and their allies, said Bayley Leyshon, who spoke for the club.

Originally, they asked permission to alter the logo and give stickers with the rainbow F to any teacher volunteering to be identified as a “safe space.”

Before Wednesday’s meeting, however, the group amended its request by taking out the part about distributing stickers to teachers. Teachers can’t engage in political speech in the classroom, and the schools’ lawyer said the rainbow F would constitute political speech.

The new request was to create a rainbow F logo for the group to use to “encourage a safe, accepting space in our school.” They agreed not to use the logo to make money, but would instead raise money another way to buy items to put the logo on to give away.

Many in the community found out about the request via social media. It appeared someone who had access to the request letter leaked it to the conservative blog Bearing Drift. Author Rob Schilling wrote an opinion piece posted Nov. 2 which lit up social media. (See sidebar below.)


One by one people walked to the podium and expressed their positions.

The comments fell into two general camps – those who said they supported the Alliance group but were against the rainbow logo and those who supported both.

Those against the sticker cited the following concerns:

  • What happens to teachers who choose not to display it?
  • If all kids aren’t safe already, there’s a bigger problem the board isn’t facing.
  • If the board allows this change to the logo, they’d be opening a “Pandora’s box” or headed down a “slippery slope” to grant every request that comes before them.

Amber Kidd said: “I found about this reading it on Facebook. When something like this is going on, isn’t there a way for the schools to let the parents know rather them letting them read about it on Facebook? For the record, I’m totally against using the F with a rainbow. What happens to the teachers who don’t put it up? Will they be sued for discrimination?”

Rose Lemaster said: “My concern is the need for a safe space and the ideology that a sticker could represent the safe space… I feel like there’s already a safe zone in the county in the schools… Would you be opening a Pandora’s box for any club or group who comes along who wants to use a sticker? Do the Sons of the Confederacy get a Fluco label? Black Lives Matter? Where is the line and who’s going to draw it?… What is the need for this? Is there a core issue of bullying within our schools that is not being addressed? Are we not protecting our children? Because we have a bullying policy.”

Brad Pace said: “The symbol represents all students and all taxpayers in Fluvanna County. I do not think the symbol should be altered or doctored or edited by any one particular group… The symbol – they’re concerned about a safe space – the symbol does not create a safe space… The Fluvanna County High School Student Handbook covers harassment. It covers harassment of all kinds on pages 41 and 42. That document to me creates a safe space at all our schools… I do not want any teachers addressing my daughter as a student in high school in regards to any personal matters sexually, politically or any other content. That is for the parents, not for the teachers.”

Tyler Pieron said: “I really think there are a number of separate issues in this one discussion. I’m a little insulted that our teachers are thought so poorly of that they would have to have a sticker – need a sticker to be a safe space for students. If there are any teachers, administration or staff that would be threatening or not supportive of their students, they need to go.”

Darrell Byers said: “I do support the Alliance; however, I do not support the symbol. Everyone should be treated the same regardless of who they are and what it is they’re doing in their lives. And the schools should always be a safe space for everyone. If everyone isn’t [safe] then we have two concerns. We either have a policy issue or we have an enforcement issue as it relates to the bullying that occurs. The school system has a duty to enforce the policy as written and if it doesn’t therein lies the problem for me.”

Another side

Those who expressed support for both the Alliance Club and the rainbow F often shared personal stories and statistics on the mental health of members of marginalized communities.

Janice McCormick said: “As a pediatric nurse I have to ask, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to display [a sticker]? Why wouldn’t you want to provide a safe learning environment? Why wouldn’t you want to potentially stop a youth from contemplating suicide by just listening to them and offering them support?”

Christina Rittenour said: “One survey revealed that more than one-third of gay respondents had missed an entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe there… The National School Climate survey recommends gay-straight alliances…supportive educators…comprehensive bullying/harassment policies and laws. Teachers are not choosing sides, making political statements or ‘capitulating [to] interest groups’ by displaying a rainbow sticker in their classrooms… The only statement being made by teachers who choose to display the rainbow F is, ‘I care about you. You matter. You are safe here with me.’”

Karen Mann said: “I am a parent, farmer and pastor here in Fluvanna. My wife, our two kids and I have been living in Fluvanna for four years, though my family has roots in this county going way back… It would not have been possible for me to come out in high school; the atmosphere was completely toxic to anyone even perceived as being gay. I know the world has changed a lot since I graduated, but I can only imagine that coming out in high school is still fraught with the very real possibility of being ostracized or facing violence and ridicule… A small sticker on a door or in a window, probably inconspicuous to most, would be a beacon of hope to a struggling teenager… And to the students gathered here, I want you to know that my farm, my church are always a haven, a safe space for you.”

Jason Cooper said: “I don’t understand transgender because I’m not one. What I am is an ally. For the record, I’m Republican. Gun-toting. Card-carrying. I grew up on a farm surrounded by red everywhere. I think those days may be over… I don’t understand it. But, as a man I’ve never had to walk through a parking lot with keys in my hand for protection. That’s why men will never understand what women go through, what gays go through if they’re not gay, because it’s not a critical piece of your life. So it’s very important for you to broaden your horizons, take a step back and really listen.”

Melissa Irvin said: “My entire life I had the best friend anyone could ever ask for… He was kind. He was caring and he was compassionate. When he was 14 he came out to his parents. I heard someone say that sexuality only deserves to be discussed with parents. His dad beat him until he couldn’t stand up… There was no safe place for him… In 2005 [my friend] put a gun in his mouth and blew his brains out. That’s what happened. This isn’t just a sticker. This is a representation of where people can go because parents aren’t always the safe space. Sometimes you need somebody outside a parent to go to talk about things and to identify.”

Toby Young said: “You want to make a safe space? They didn’t even have a safe space on this board when they sent you a letter. So how do you expect them to have a safe space in the high school?”

Kerry Murphy-Hammond said: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. LGB teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens… When you strip the noise from this issue and the attempts to make this more divisive than it is, these kids are simply looking for acceptance. They’re not looking to divide this community. The adults are.”

Several teens who identified themselves as students spoke.

A 15-year-old member of the Alliance Club said: “We didn’t mean to turn this into a whole thing. All we want is acceptance. A safe space. The sticker would be a symbol of trust, love, care and kindness.”

Another teen said, “I’m not a part of the Alliance Club but was almost a part of the statistics. It’s really true that these stickers are more than just stickers. They are a beacon of hope.”

Following her was another teen who revealed painful experiences. “I’ve attempted suicide multiple times. I’ve slit my wrists, drank bleach and tried to hang myself because of how I’ve been treated. I just want us as a group to be accepted.”

Safety surprise

As board members discussed the request, some said the stories shocked them.

Brenda Pace (Palmyra) told the students she loved them and was proud of them.

“I’m disappointed and it breaks my heart,” she said. “I came here with a different mindset – I have to be honest with you… I could not understand how a sticker could make a difference. But in hearing what some of you had to say I guess my disappointment is you don’t feel safe in our schools and that there aren’t support systems in our schools for you that you feel comfortable with. That being said, that means we have work to do…”

Superintendent Chuck Winkler said he was also upset to hear students don’t feel safe, because that’s the school’s primary responsibility.

“My job is to educate,” he said. “Fluvanna has become my family. I’ve been hurt in this process. I feel bad about some of the things that have happened and I can’t help but take responsibility. I want to do what’s right.”

Shirley Stewart (Rivanna) said it’s important for the board to start listening.

“What I heard a lot tonight was a lot of heartfelt sharing of very personal information by many people, both students and adults in our community… The adults here who spoke about the pain they felt growing up, that stays with you and none of us wants our students to go through their teenage years or younger or older feeling that kind of pain. I’m hoping we can use this evening as a way to start listening to each other and find a way to expand the sharing that happened here to make people who live in Fluvanna feel like their neighbors care about them regardless of any kind of preference they may have. For me it’s good to know that we can maybe expand our counseling services in the school to help students.”

When Johnson asked for a motion reflecting the students’ changed request, in which they removed the part about distributing the stickers to teachers, Andrew Pullen (Columbia) interjected.

“I’ve been googling trademark laws and now that the request has changed, I don’t think this is a decision for the board,” he said. “[The law] doesn’t allow the government to own your intellectual property. You can do with the logo what you want to do with the logo. Putting all your personal issues aside, I wouldn’t have supported the issue as originally presented, but now as it’s changed, I don’t think it’s a decision for us. It’s a decision for the individuals. I couldn’t be the limited government person I am if I told you the government controls intellectual property. I’d be a hypocrite.”

Pullen encouraged the board to consult further with the lawyers. He said that the board does not own the Fluco F logo; rather, the students do.

“To me, the law is the law and I don’t think we own it. I think they own it,” Pullen said.

The issue of who owns the F logo was not resolved during the meeting.

Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) said he, too, would have voted no.

During the discussion Johnson said, “We’ve allowed groups to modify the logo.”

Winkler explained that a couple of years ago the high school athletic department made a change to the logo by adding the American flag to it. It was used to show support for veterans, Winkler said. Stickers and t-shirts and other items were sold.

Pullen looked surprised. “And you profited from that?” he asked Winkler.

“Yes,” Winkler said. “We made money. We own the trademark and we can use it any way we want to.”

During the second round of public comments, Young was one of many who stepped up the microphone to express frustration with the board.

“I’ve seen these kids get bullied twice,” he said. “They got bullied by whoever leaked that letter. Then they got bulled tonight. What they learned is if you’re in athletics, you can do whatever you want. If you’re in athletics, you can change the logo and make money on it.”

Letter leaked (sidebar)

Parents on both sides of the ideological divide were angered by the release of the letter to the conservative Bearing Drift blog.

It was the central issue in the blog’s Nov. 2 post, “The culture wars come to Fluvanna County High.”

The C’ville Pride Facebook page picked it up and posted a call to action to support the Fluvanna student Alliance club at the School Board meeting. C’Ville Pride’s page states it is about “Community. Equality. Diversity.”

Kerry Murphy-Hammond said the issue didn’t become politicized until someone leaked the letter.

“It is completely unacceptable that someone took a letter from a student and sent it to someone prior to allowing due process,” Murphy Hammond said. “In looking at the version of the letter in the School Board agenda packet and the one featured on the blog, it’s clear that whoever inappropriately sent it to the blogger did so without taking basic steps to protect the privacy of the student and teacher, subsequently putting the student and teacher at risk. Additionally, the county has now been exposed to legal risk. As a result, the teacher has been targeted online and verbally harassed. You, as a School Board, have an obligation to identify who leaked that letter and take the appropriate action. The potential legal exposure should not be underestimated nor the breach of trust with students, parents and our community.”

Angela Davis said she was “outraged” by the release of any student’s information.

“The fact that a student’s letter, with identifying information, was leaked to the public is appalling,” she said. “If board members want to let the public know what’s going on, fine. But at no time, ever, should any identifying information be given out about a student. Period. Talk about a breach of confidentiality.”

Jason Cooper suggested the board “be speedy in finding out who leaked that letter.”

Shirley Stewart (Rivanna) assured the public, “I had nothing to do with it.”

In the end, it wasn’t clear how, or even if, the board would investigate.

Chair Perrie Johnson (Fork Union) said “if this is what happened,” a board member could potentially face a resolution of censure or reprimand.

Several law enforcement officials said the release of student information did not appear to violate any criminal law and indicated it was an internal school matter.

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