COLUMBUS, Ohio — As many schools across the state enjoy their winter breaks, the fallout continues from a change in policy for one Ohio district.

What You Need To Know

  • Big Walnut Local Schools board members voted 3-2 to pass a policy controlling what flags and displays can be placed inside classrooms and on school grounds

  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio asked the board to repeal the policy, calling it unconstitutional

  • Students involved in the Big Walnut High School Pride Society said they feel unsafe in the aftermath of the policy

Members of the Big Walnut Local Schools board voted 3-2 to adopt a resolution intended to restrict displays and flags on school property at the group’s last meeting of the year.

This week the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to the school board requesting the policy be repealed, calling it unconstitutional. The group said it will consider legal action if the policy remains in place.

Alice Nicks, the board member who proposed the initial policy change, said it was necessary after parents approached her saying their students felt uncomfortable in a classroom where a rainbow Pride flag was present.

Included in the policy is a limit on classroom displays to those tying to the current unit of study and restrictions on the size and location of advertisements for student organizations.

The nearly four-hour meeting included public comment from about 40 students, teachers and members of the community on both sides of the issue.

Noah Heath, Big Walnut High School teacher, said he had a Pride flag in his room as a faculty sponsor of the school’s Pride Society.

“I’ve heard comments along the lines, ‘We shouldn’t need symbols to let students know they’re safe,’ and I wish that were true,” Heath said during the meeting. “When we put up the flyers for Pride Society meetings, a student-led and run organization, before the end of the day, over half of them were torn down. Vandalized. Found in urinals. Across the building.”

But Board President Doug Crowl said this additional policy was needed to have greater control.

“If we don’t have a resolution to regulate the flags, then we’ll have a thousand flags in the classroom,” he said.

Before the board’s vote, Big Walnut Local Schools Superintendent Ryan McLane told the voting members the overall recommendation from the district’s legal counsel was not to adopt the policy.

Jasper Franco, a junior at Big Walnut High School, helped start the Pride Society on campus this year. He shared his concerns with the board before the vote, saying removing the flags from school removes a sense of safety.

“When I hear these adults talk about me and my community like this, it’s kind of heartbreaking,” he said.

Jasper gathered with some other Pride Society members after the last day of finals to celebrate the end of the semester.

He said he wanted to create the club to give all kids a safe space, whether they’re transgender like him or just looking for acceptance.

“I spend a lot of time around people who don’t know how to respect me or are almost afraid to say anything to me,” Jasper said.

He started the Pride Society with the help of Grace Dorsten.

“Even if you don’t agree, no one wants to be hated on and no one deserves to be hated on,” she said.

The sophomore said she’s personally experienced bullying from trying to promote the club.

“If people know you were at that meeting and that you are or support part of that community,” Grace said.

“Especially when other students do things like tear down the posters or take them into the bathrooms, it kind of sends the message, this is something that students will try to fight against,” Jasper added.

The group of students all watched as members of the Big Walnut Local Schools board voted to ban something they call a symbol of safety: rainbow Pride flags.

“It represents something that doesn’t align with their beliefs,” Grace said. “Or something that’s intolerable to people.”

Taylor Thompson, a senior, said it was an intense scene.

“There was a lot of really aggressive people on both ends,” she said. “Just people mad or people upset about the outcome. Or some people very proud of the outcome. There was just, like, a lot of heavy emotion.”

She said the atmosphere in the school changed practically overnight after the board’s move to regulate what can be displayed on school property.

“It’s making our school look more like a dystopia and it’s awful,” Taylor said. “I feel like I’m part of a book right now.”

“It’s sending a message to us that we are controversial,” Jasper said. “And we shouldn’t have to feel like that.”

As hard as it is to take, Jasper said, getting angry gets him nowhere.

“They just don’t know how to understand,” he said. “Because they’ve never given themself the chance to. Because they’re afraid that if they think too much about it, they’ll realize that they have been in the wrong.”

But with each setback, the students said they’re more determined to keep being a voice for those too afraid to speak.

Neither Big Walnut Local Schools nor members of its board responded to Spectrum News requests for comment.