BAYFIELD – An eighth grade teacher’s decision to hang a rainbow flag and hold a discussion about LGBTQ issues has sparked controversy in the town of Bayfield.
Lyn Riley, a teacher at Bayfield Middle School, displayed the flag earlier this month after a student asked her if she would hang it on the classroom wall. Students had been decorating the classroom all year, and Riley said she received permission from the school principal to display the gay pride flag.
The day she hung it, several students reacted in anger after seeing it on the wall, upsetting other students in the process, she said.
Riley stopped her lesson to address student concerns and resolve the conflict, she said. She was not advocating for or against LGBTQ issues, she said; rather, she was advocating for kindness.
“My intention was not to have a classroom discussion about it,” she said. “I want all of my students to feel included and to feel safe in my classroom, so we had a conversation about why that is important.”
Since then, parents have become upset that Riley hung the rainbow flag – which is commonly used as a symbol of unity in LGBTQ social movements – and objected to discussions around the flag or sexuality.
The parents held a meeting Oct. 17 at Bayfield Town Hall to discuss the incident. At the meeting, LGBTQ-rights advocates holding signs and rainbow flags greeted concerned parents in front of Town Hall.
“I was upset that I didn’t get to have that conversation with my daughter,” said Michael Dawn Vavrina, whose Facebook post spurred a social media debate about the flag in the classroom, at the community meeting. “The teacher gave her perspective, and I don’t think that’s the teacher’s responsibility. She should be teaching academics, and that should not be taught in school.”
Some parents searched for solutions. Others advocated against LGBTQ lessons and for a pressure campaign on school board candidates in the November elections. The discussion broke down several times in a series of interruptions before regaining some order.
“The parents should know what’s going on in school,” said Jennifer Stucka-Benally, a gay rights advocate. “The rainbow flag represents that all students feel safe.”
Out of the confusion, one thing became clear: There are many conflicting stories about what happened in the classroom the day the flag was displayed.
“I was definitely caught off guard by all the backlash in the community because I did not think it would be an issue at all,” said Riley, who joined the middle school in August.
In the classroom discussion, Riley said she emphasized respecting the beliefs of everyone, even when they differ from personal beliefs.
“I have a duty as a teacher to make sure that students are all being nice to each other,” she said. “I never once told them that you have to believe that being gay is right. My conversation with them was that you should be kind to people whether or not you agree with their choices.”
High school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared with their heterosexual peers. Almost half of transgender adults have considered suicide in the past 12 months, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
At the community meeting, Jenna Stumpf, a parent, said she was concerned about students in the LGBTQ community.
“I don’t worry so much about suicide for some of them because they have each other. ... It is scary what might happen as far as suicides,” she said.
Beyond the classroom events, Bayfield community members at the meeting argued for different paths forward.
“If your kid was over at my house, and he was asking me questions, how would you want me to respond?” one parent, Jessey Ramirez, asked another parent.
Ramirez suggested hosting a group of people with diverse opinions to try to find some resolution and a path forward.
Other parents wanted to be able to opt their children out of LGBTQ-related lessons. Several agreed the school should be focused on academics and should not be teaching “moral issues.”