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Shawnee Mission School Board Won't Back Down From Safety Pin Ban

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

The Shawnee Mission School District board and its superintendent faced a packed room of very unhappy parents and teachers Monday night.

The district has come under fire for strongly suggesting to staff that they refrain from wearing safety pins. The pins are seen by many as a sign to students that they're in a safe place, but some see the pins as a protest of the election of Donald Trump.

Before the meeting even started, board President Sara Goodburn made it very clear: We'll listen to your concerns but we're not changing our minds.

Still, cheered on by about 150 people in the board of education room, a dozen parents got up to say the district should reverse its decision.

“Does the school district want to be a leader? Does the school district want to be for people of all faiths, for people of all ethnicity, people of all backgrounds? Or does it want to be exclusionary? And by doing something like this its saying it wants to be exclusionary," said Jeff Passan from Prairie Village whose children go to Briarwood Elementary. 

Jessica Gunkel from Overland Park described herself as a conservative Christian. Gunkel says her biggest worry used to be whether teachers would be banned from wearing crosses to school. But now she hears horror stories from her adopted 4th grade son, who is from Guatemala. Other kids tell him he's going to be forced to leave the country.

“He comes home in tears about what he’s heard about kids talking about the possibilities of what would come up, I told him that someone wearing a safety pin would be able to explain things to him and his friends. And symbol has been taken away,” Gunkel said. 

Even a former Shawnee Mission board president got up to criticize the current board.

Don Culp served on the board from 1976 to 1984. He said the safety pin was "a symbol of inclusiveness" and he's now "reluctant to say he's a graduate of the Shawnee Mission School District."

"You're slamming the door on freedom of speech," said Culp.

Superintendent Jim Hinson again said he had no choice. He said he got "dozens of complaints" mostly from teachers about not only the safety pins but the display of Confederate flags after the election.

“This was brought to us through complaint process. We have to deal with all political speech that could be disruptive to the education environment equally. So I cannot pick on one and leave another one untouched so we have to deal with it all the same,” Hinson said before the meeting.

He says some complaints are still rolling in, a week after this came to light.

Hinson was clearly unhappy with how this unfolded. “I was really taken back, I think, by the response by some individuals in our schools post-election that wanted to bring unhappiness, disdain and influence other employees or expose students to their political views. I was very surprised by that.”

Sam Zeffcovers education for KCUR and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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