Protesters outside the Monongalia County Board of Education building on September 27. Photo by Ian Karbal

MORGANTOWN — It was the second week of school at Morgantown High, and junior Olive Tapia couldn’t shake the sense that something was wrong.

“I noticed that one of my teacher’s classrooms was a little empty,” Tapia said. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was missing.”

After class, a friend pointed it out: a number of pride flags and stickers promoting LGBTQ acceptance had been taken down following new guidance from Monongalia County School Superintendent Eddie Campbell. Displaying rainbow flags in classrooms, he said, violated the school district’s policy against showing political material in classrooms.

“I was really disappointed, because I felt like we’ve had such great progress,” Tapia said. “To have such a big step back was really upsetting. I can’t really find the words for it.”

Though the decision to remove the flags was made entirely by adults, a student movement led by LGBTQ Morgantown High students has responded loudly. They’ve confronted the superintendent and Board of Education, held protests and walked out of classes en masse. 

The backlash in Monongalia County comes as displays of LGBTQ acceptance in schools have drawn increased hostility in West Virginia, including a rainbow-flag mural in Randolph County that was painted over last year. According to the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, roughly a quarter of the free speech complaints they’ve received this year are about LGBTQ issues in schools. 

Olive Tapia at the Monongalia County Board of Education building protest on Sept. 27. Photo by Ian Karbal.

For Tapia, who has been out of the closet since they were 11, the pride flags were more than a symbol of acceptance. They were an indicator of which teachers they could safely confide in, and what classrooms they could safely open up in.

“People in my family are generally accepting, but they don’t really talk about it,” Tapia said. “To have someone be so open was like a breath of fresh air. I knew I could go to my teachers and they would love me and accept me for who I am, and that I could talk to them about those struggles and they would understand.”

Tapia first noticed the flags were gone in early September; earlier this week, they were one of many students who spoke or protested at a local school board meeting and joined a student walkout the following day. 

The late afternoon meeting was the second time the Monongalia County Board of Education had heard testimony on the issue, but the first time the policy allowing the ban was included on the agenda and publicly discussed by board members. 

The board room reached capacity before the meeting began. Outside the building, dozens of protesters gathered to support the students opposing the ban and listen via live stream. Their cheers and applause for the student speakers were occasionally audible in the room itself. 

Nearly all of the 37 public speakers were against the ban, A handful of people, none of them current students, supported it.

“These flags represent love, and acceptance and friendship, and what are we doing teaching our students if not teaching them these things,” said Sam Hunley, 17, a senior at Morgantown High, at a lecturn before the packed meeting room. “These statements are not political. These statements are not an election pamphlet. These flags mean, ‘you matter.’”

Morgantown High school senior Sam Hunley speaks to the Monongalia County Board of Education. Photo by Ian Karbal

When the public comment portion of the board meeting ended, Superintendent Campbell addressed the crowd to explain why he made the decision.

“I truly appreciate you being here this evening,” Campbell said. “Those flags need to be removed, as would any particular political or ideological flag or sign … It is someone exercising a point of view in a classroom, and that violates our policy.”

Campbell said this was not a decision he came to by himself. Following school kickoff events in August, Campbell said, he received a complaint from community members, including a Morgantown High school student, about pride flags in classrooms. Those community members, he said, were concerned that the flag violated a district rule against displaying political symbols in schools.

Campbell said he sought outside legal counsel after the complaint, recommended to him by the state board of education. That outside counsel, Campbell said, found that pride flags were disallowed, as well as “anything that supports a particular ideology.”

 “What ideology?” Hunley asked aloud from her seat. Campbell didn’t answer.

In his comments to the board, Campbell didn’t point to any harm the inclusion of pride flags have caused at Morgantown High. But LGBTQ students say the removal of the symbols was a political act in itself, and moreover one that threatened their safety.

Morgantown High senior Aaron Reedy says at previous schools, he was bullied for being transgender. Some of the worst incidents led to a concussion and a broken foot, respectively, and Reedy spent many lunches eating alone in the library.

But when Reedy transferred to Morgantown High, things changed. He remembers the first pride flag he noticed, during his third period class. That teacher was the first that Reedy felt comfortable approaching and telling his name and pronouns.

“Whenever you’re closeted, at least in my experience, it feels almost like you’re backed into a corner and that you’re sort of fighting to get out,” he said. “It feels like everybody wants to be against you, even if it’s not necessarily true. Last year I felt a lot more open.”

Aaron Reedy and Lonnie Medley, Morgantown High school seniors, at a September 27 protest at the Monongalia County Board of Education building. Photo by Ian Karbal

Now that Reedy is out at school, he says he feels like a kinder person. Even his mom, he says, calls him “completely changed.”

Beyond being the president of his school’s Sexuality and Gender Acceptance club, Reedy is involved in the school’s robotics club. He won a national award for student poetry and likes to study history.

But in spite of the sense of community that Morgantown High fostered, Reedy is concerned about the impacts of removing the pride symbols. 

Since they were taken down, Reedy has noticed an increase in bullying against his LGBTQ friends and schoolmates. In the two weeks since Reedy first addressed the Board of Education about the issue, he says he’s been harassed in a stairwell and glared at in the bathroom, something he never experienced in his first year at the school.

Morgantown High school freshman Patrick Aucremanne after leaving the Monongalia County Board of Education meeting. Photo by Ian Karbal

Reedy has also been approached by younger students who have told him they’re scared.

One of those freshmen, Patrick Aucremanne, 14, said “I have been bullied more than I have in eight years,” since the flags were taken down in the school. Aucremanne was at the Board of Education meeting earlier this week, wearing a rainbow flag as a cape. 

But Reedy, Tapia and the other student officers of the SAGA club have inspired Aucremanne to speak up, and to seek a leadership role themself when they’re older.

Despite the turnout, the student testimony and the board discussion, Board members made no move to reverse the policy.

Board member Ron Lytle, one of the most vocal opponents of pride flags in classrooms, noted that regardless, LGBTQ students experience a disproportionate amount of bullying. 

“For kids to feel safe in the school environment, that should be the goal,” he said. “If we put the flags back up, we’ll be right back where we are now 10 years from now.”

As they listened, the students who had just told the board members the flags make them feel safer grew visibly agitated. 

The Monongalia County Board of Education. Photo by Ian Karbal

In one of the few moments where a board member directly addressed the crowd of mostly students, former students and school staff, Jennifer Hagerty, one of the two board members to oppose the ban, congratulated the students on their bravery in speaking up.

“I appreciate everybody who came to talk, but I guarantee you this is a small percentage of the students that they’re representing,” she said. “As an adult I have a difficulty, believe it or not, talking in front of people. But as a child it’s a brave thing to do to stand up and say, ‘I’m different.’” 

Night had fallen outside the Board of Education building, when students gathered. Many congratulated each other for taking a stand. When two students cried, others came to console them. 

“It felt awful that they were speaking for us and they didn’t hear a lot of what was said. They didn’t listen to us,” said Morgantown High senior Lonnie Medley. “They just kind of said, ‘oh, we heard their speeches, so this is how they feel,’ so it felt kind of pointless and powerless to be sitting there.”

But to Medley, who was able to come out in part because of the acceptance of the community he found at Morgantown High, “what stood out the most were the supportive ones.” 

He appreciated how he felt the two board members who opposed the flag ban — Hagerty and Daniel Berry — relied on and reiterated the arguments made by students.

One by one, or in carpools, the students who couldn’t drive themselves were picked up. The board meeting went on even after the last had left.

Morgantown High school students Olive Tapia, Aaron Reedy, Sam Hunley and Finn Monteith watch the Board of Education meeting. Photo by Ian Karbal.

The next day, Reedy, the president of the school’s SAGA club, joined a crowd of between 200 and 250 for a walk out that he helped organize. The walk-out was not a SAGA-endorsed event.

The crowd was almost entirely in support. But on social media, other Morgantown High students posted disparaging remarks that included curses, insults, and threats to bring hateful imagery to compete with the outpouring of support for pride flags.

Even so, Reedy was overwhelmed by the support. Students were joined by a handful of teachers and Monongalia County Delegate Danielle Walker.

“I had some freshmen, who are also trans guys, come up and say, ‘wow, I wanna be like you,’” Reedy said. “Having younger kids look at me and say, ‘I wanna be like him,’ and being able to see ‘he can be out, and he can do these things, and he can be safe,’ that’s a really important thing to have.”

Reedy said that the students of Morgantown High are not done protesting.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.