by Mike Knaak
A debate about small, rainbow-colored safe-space stickers that has simmered in the Sartell-St. Stephen school district since last summer appears to be settled.
During spring break, school officials planned to replace the safe-space stickers that appeared in some high school classrooms with posters in all classrooms to address the wider issues of discrimination and bullying.
The safe space signage debate has taken place as the district works toward an education equity plan, an effort that gained urgency after the killing of George Floyd two years ago. The safe-space stickers showed support for the LGBTQ community and its allies.
“This messaging is around improving the environment so that it’s free of bullying, harassment and discrimination,” said Pat Marushin, school board chair. “Putting up signs by itself is not going to change the environment. We have to keep working on projects that improve our student experience to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
Some parents objected to the rainbow stickers and threatened to sue, claiming other groups were denied the opportunity to put up their signs. Because stickers were not posted in all classrooms, the implication was that those places were not safe spaces.
At the March 21 school board meeting, a student and a parent addressed the issue during the open forum. More than 60 people filled the board room and a couple dozen more filled the hallway outside.
Bennett Prose, a ninth-grade student, spoke about the signage in a three-minute statement.
“I’m here to discuss how we can make our schools a safe space for all students,” he said.
“Three weeks ago, the Gender Sexuality Alliance and Student Advocates for Equity groups had a joint meeting. We were told rainbow stickers around the school would be taken down,” Prose told the board. “The stickers were so incredibly impactful for so many students. They created a culture of love and support where everywhere else seems to be filled with hate. I don’t ask we keep up the stickers. I understand why they have to come down. I ask we continue to work together to create a safe space for all students in our district.”
Parent Chris Yasgar, who first objected to the safe-space stickers last summer and who has spoken on the topic during the open forum several times since, again pressed his point.
“This topic is a boiling point and that is a real shame. We are simply asking the district to follow federal law,” Yasgar said. “One group has been allowed to express ideas by placing signs and stickers throughout the school district including classroom windows, doors and walls. Other groups, organized under the exact same group umbrella, have been explicitly denied the same opportunity for expression. This is viewpoint discrimination. One group is being excluded while another is being accommodated.”
Meanwhile, school leaders including Marushin, board member Matt Moehrle and Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover met with students to come up with an alternative that would address equity issues but also satisfy the district’s lawyers. Administrators and the students discussed several versions of the wording before settling on this text: “This is a… welcoming space. In this school, bullying, discrimination and harassment are prohibited.”
One of the students who met with the administration, ninth-grader Paisley Watson, designed the new poster. “Taking down the stickers affected the community’s mental health,” Watson said. “I’m passionate about finding a replacement and not leaving students with nothing.”
“I personally don’t want any student in our district to ever feel there isn’t a safe space for them,” said junior Steph Bluhm. “Letting our students know with a little sticker was really important to me and many others as just a small symbol that you are welcome here, you are heard, acknowledged and loved.”
Prose added during an interview later in the week, “A lot of my time in the middle school, the middle school did not feel like a safe space and then going in the high school where there were these little symbols made a big difference. I think all kids should be safe and supported at school.”
“The district has been working very closely with us and we appreciate what they have been doing with us and for us,” Bluhm said. “We knocked this sign out in a week-and-a-half and that’s record time to get stuff passed by legal counsel, by our groups and our admin.”
The current policy that governs displaying non-school materials in buildings may be reviewed, Marushin said.
spells out what material and messaging is acceptable but it leaves the decision up to building administrators with the option of appealing the decision to the superintendent.
“I try to keep my focus on students and how decisions impact students,” Marushin said. “I want to make sure we have good policies in place that follow our mission and give the kids the best experiences and outcomes.”
Last week, the district emailed parents and staff about the new signs that are planned to be in place when classes resume after break.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Prose said. “These signs are no way an end point. Equity is a continuing issue. There’s a lot of work to be done but we’re ready to do it.”
Prose added the district needs to support professional development for teachers and staff. “A lot of teachers don’t know how to handle uncomfortable topics,” Prose said “That’s not their fault. The district needs to be held accountable to prepare their teachers. Even if teachers are uncomfortable handling a topic, they must be able to guide a student to a person who is more well equipped to help.”
Marushin is also looking ahead.
“The signage is a bit of a jumping off point,” Marushin said. “Just reminding people of what our core values are, and then we need to go out and live them.”