Metro Weekly

Florida Teacher Forced to Remove Rainbow “Coexist” Flag

District officials say the flag -- and ostensibly, the message it sends -- defies a ban on "political" symbols and "partisan politics."

The rainbow colored “COEXIST” flag (center) that school officials in a Sarasota high school demanded by removed – Photo: WFLA.

A Florida teacher has been ordered to remove a rainbow-colored flag from his classroom wall on the grounds that the flag and the message it sends are too “political” in nature.

Jeremy Baldwin, a teacher at Booker High School in Sarasota, Florida, for the last five and a half years, says for years he’s had three flags displayed in his classroom that symbolize peace, love, and acceptance — in the hope of communicating to students that they should feel welcome in his classroom.

“It is just something that’s meant to be there and kind of give the room an ambiance that everyone is welcome and we are just going to get along and coexist,” Baldwin told NBC affiliate WFLA.

The first flag is a smiley face with the words “peace,” “love,” and “happiness” on it, the second is a flag with a peace sign, and the third is a black “Coexist” flag with rainbow colors. It’s that third flag that’s sparked controversy after school and district administrators demanded he take it down for being “political.”

Despite having no issues with the flag flying in his classroom for the past four years, Baldwin says district officials are being overly sensitive about anything that communicates a “political” message. He noted that the district’s decision came on the heels of the passage of the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which has been dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The bill, which has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis and becomes enforceable July 1, bars any discussion or instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity from being broached in primary classrooms — or, in some cases, secondary and high school classrooms, if material is considered not to be “age or developmentally appropriate.” Critics say the law cannot be enforced without infringing on the rights of, or discriminating against, LGBTQ students and students with same-sex parents.

What’s remarkable is that the “Coexist” flag contains largely religious symbols representing various groups, like the Star of David and a cross, as well as peace signs — none of which are traditionally associated with the LGBTQ community. There is a symbol comprised of the symbols for male and female in the “e” of “Coexist,” but those symbols refer to binary gender, not gender identity per see.

There is also an “equals” sign in the middle of the “e” that might be considered a  sign referring to LGBTQ equality — such as in the Human Rights Campaign’s logo — but such an interpretation would seem to be overanalyzing a symbol that can also signify equality for a number of racial, religious, or ethnic groups, as well as between males and females.

Lastly, the rainbow-colored text on the flag might be considered by some to be an allusion to the LGBTQ rights movement, which has adopted the rainbow Pride flag as its chief symbol, but it’s not as if the LGBTQ community is the only group with a claim to using the colors of the rainbow in its artwork.

Baldwin says school administrators have failed to provide a clear explanation of why the flag is controversial.

“I know the law says nothing about ‘Don’t Say Gay’ but, in action, it sure looks like it is ‘Don’t Say Gay’ if right after that is passed, a flag I have had for four years is now suddenly asked to be removed because it is considered political,” Baldwin said. “Other than being told that it was political by my principal, no one will define why that rainbow flag is considered political.”

In response to an inquiry from WFLA, Sarasota County Schools claimed the flag is a violation of School Board Policy 2.51, which bans “political posters,” political campaigning, and “participation in partisan politics” on school property.

“It is the expectation of all district administrators, school-based administrators, teachers, staff members, and students to adhere to School Board policies and work together to maintain a safe and effective working and learning environment for all,” the district said in a statement.

Baldwin says students have expressed confusion over the flag removal.

“The biggest question I got from my students was, ‘Why is that political? That is not Republican, that is not Democrat,'” he said. “It’s not trying to persuade anyone to believe one way or another, it’s just a show of acceptance and approval, that is what is the most frustrating.”

Some Sarasota County School Board members have questioned the policy.

“I know that the policy is being cited about it being political, but I don’t view the rainbow flag as political. I view that as an identity, which is not a political item,” School Board Member Thomas Edwards told WFLA.

School Board Member Shirley Brown says she plans to bring up the issue during the next board workshop, which is scheduled for May 3.

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