A principal in Virginia disavowed a teacher’s use of the popular picture book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag after a parent complained via local news. The principal wrote to the parents of every second grader in the class where the book was read and explained the teacher had not gotten pre-approval for the book, which has become one of the latest excuses schools hide behind instead of standing behind their educators. CBLDF in their role as cosponsors of Kids’ Right to Read Project, wrote to support the educator and their choice of book, as well as urge the district to add this important book to their regular curriculum.
Books that honor LGBTQ histories and narratives are disproportionately censored in schools, chilling LGBTQ voices in the community. Such censorship stigmatizes an already marginalized community and is especially harmful to LGBTQ youth who face serious threats to their mental and physical health. Classrooms should be welcoming spaces where students can ask questions and express their own thoughts, trusting that their teachers will be ready to guide them towards deeper understanding and tolerance towards those who are different from them.
Pride chronicles the iconic Rainbow Pride Flag from its earliest beginnings with activist Harvey Milk and designer Gilbert Baker, to the worldwide phenomenon it has become. The teacher in Virginia chose this picture book as part of a civil rights lesson, with the overarching theme of fighting bigotry in accordance with the district’s own anti-bullying curriculum. According to one report, the teacher overheard one child use the term gay as a derogatory term against another student and decided to create a teachable moment.
Culley Burleson, a mother of one of the students went to the local news to voice her complaints about the book, after she approached the teacher and the teacher didn’t back down about the lesson, explaining it was part of a larger civil rights lesson.
When the local news reached out to the district for comment, that’s when the principal sent home the letters blaming the teacher not getting pre-approval for the book as the problem. But teachers are only required to get pre-approval for work which is controversial. Pride doesn’t contain any violence or sexual imagery and is only controversial if you see the existence of the LGBTQIA community as controversial.
“It caused her to question her faith, it caused her to know what homosexuality is,” Burleson told local news.
Burleson admits it’s not so much the book that she sees as the problem, as the images in the book. In one particular picture, Milk is standing in front of a crowd of protestors, some of whom hold signs like “gays must go” and “god says no.” For her daughter, who was raised to believe that god loves everyone, she found this contradiction difficult to parse. According to Burleson, her daughter came home after the lesson and questioned why god would hate anyone. It’s a good question and one that people much older than her daughter have spent time and energy trying to unravel.
KRRP was not alone in defending the picture book. During the open comments part of a school board meeting, parents stood up and admonished the principal’s treatment of the book as controversial. Several parents stood up and spoke in defense of the book and the teacher, calling out the subjective nature of requiring pre-approval for controversial or sensitive subject matter. One woman wisely told the school board, “we may not censure our children’s educations based on someone’s religious beliefs.”
The KRRP letter to the Hanover County Superintendent also clarifies another school board policy that seems relevant to the teacher’s use of Pride, but wasn’t mentioned by the principal was writing home to the parent’s.
Board Policy 6-5.6 allows teachers to “enrich and support curriculum objectives” with supplemental texts, which “do not require the prior approval of the principal or the principal’s designee.” In this case, a teacher used “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” to teach her students profound lessons about human rights activism LGBTQ equality. In addition to telling an important civil rights history and promoting civic engagement, this important book teaches values enshrined in the Hanover County Code of Conduct, like “recognizing the importance of the dignity and worth of each individual” and “contributing to a climate of mutual respect for all.”
Hopefully, the voices of the parents at the school board meeting and letters from KRRP and similar organizations will weigh out the pressure felt by the local news in Hanover County. In the future we hope that more teacher’s feel empowered to choose books that relate directly to their classes, creating teachable moments from negativity and bullying. And that also principals feel empowered to stand up for their teachers, as letting trained professional dictate the pedagogical needs of the classroom is the only way to ensure the next generation leaves school as intelligent and empathetic members of the society.
Read the full letter below.