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Pride flag effort wins in one Sonoma County district, but is rejected in another

Across the county, efforts have been made to raise the rainbow pride flag, a symbol of support for the LGBTQ+ community and meant to showcase diversity across the sexuality and gender spectrum, in schools and government agencies.

For the second year in a row, the Sonoma County Office of Education raised the Pride flag in June, providing an opportunity for county education leaders to elevate students who identify as queer.

“At the Sonoma County Office of Education, we have a policy that says if there is a flag flying in Sacramento over our state government, then that is a flag that we can petition for as an organization,” county Superintendent Amie Carter said in an interview with The Press Democrat.

“It is important that it flies particularly during these months of recognition to show awareness about the inclusion of our LGBTQIA+ students.”

But while the county office proudly displayed the rainbow flag, students in two western Sonoma County school districts were struggling to convince their school boards to raise the flag.

After several rounds of discussions at board meetings and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee meetings, the West Sonoma County School District approved the use of flags other than the U.S. flag for certain commemorations or heritage months. They quickly approved the Pride flag for the month of June.

It was a different story in the Oak Grove District, a small district made up of Willowside Middle School and Oak Grove Elementary School between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Following allegations of severe homophobic and racist bullying, about 10 students from Willowside’s Gay Straight Alliance called for the pride flag to be raised in their district so their campus could feel like a more welcoming place.

“We spent the entire year at GSA researching what the flag was and writing speeches,” said Juniper Loveday-Brown, a Willowside alumna (who uses they/them pronouns) who dropped out of school midway through this school year due to homophobic cyberbullying.

When they presented their proposal to the board, it was rejected 3-2 because it was “too political and they said it wouldn’t be fair to not raise other flags,” they said.

According to several attendees, community members asked during public comment that if the pride flag was flown, what would stop someone from requesting international flags, the KKK symbol, or the Confederate flag? They also expressed concern that the flag would exclude heterosexual students.

“I totally disagree with any argument that suggests that because we’ve flown the Pride flag, we now have to display the KKK flag or something like that,” said Carter, the county superintendent. “There are ways that districts can adopt policies that really set the boundaries for their actions.”

Three Oak Grove board members — Erin Lagourge, Anita Ortega and Stephen Smilie — opposed the policy because they were concerned about the “precedent involved and ideas about flying flags other than the U.S. flag on the school flagpole,” according to minutes from the board’s Jan. 11, 2023, meeting.

Trustee Chris Topham, one of two board members who voted in favor of the pride flag, was the only one to respond to Press Democrat requests for comment.

Topham said he believes the policy of allowing flags other than the U.S. and California flags would need to be discussed first, as well as clarifying how long the pride flag would be flown.

“When the pride flag proposal first came to the board, it did not have any details associated with it that a board normally needs to approve a policy or resolution,” she said in an email. “Since no details were presented to the board for consideration, it was assumed that it would become a permanent fixture.

The boys left the board meeting in tears, Juniper Loveday said. After that, everything changed.

“I felt discouraged because we had done all this work and no one was taking it seriously,” they said. “It was different coming to school every day; there could have been a flag to symbolize that it was more welcoming.”

Cari Cardle, co-president of the Oak Grove union who also teaches sixth grade at Willowside and is a staff adviser to the Gay Straight Alliance, said the board meeting “was ugly, really ugly” and left kids “absolutely devastated.”

While teachers are allowed to display pride flags in their classrooms, Cardle said it was important for these high school students to see their district take a stand to support them, but they were left without even a nod of recognition for the bravery it took to stand in front of a room full of adults.

Cardle said students have not attempted to raise the Pride flag again this year for fear of a repeat of last year.