Their Utah County school removed all pride flags. Now these LGBTQ+ kids are fighting back.

The students have started a petition and packed a recent school board meeting, pushing for the rainbow flags to be returned.

Every pride flag that used to hang in Skyridge High School’s hallways and classrooms, library and lunchroom has been taken down.

Faded rectangles outline where they used to be, a sign of safety or belonging to the kids who had known to look for the rainbows. Now, they say, the empty spaces are a reminder that the school district saw their identities as “too political.”

“I’m hurt, and I’m upset,” said 16-year-old Olivia Brown, a bisexual student at the Utah County school. “I feel like the district has abandoned their students.”

The school’s principal was ordered to remove the flags last month at the direction of administrators over Alpine School District — the largest school district in Utah — hoping to avoid becoming the focus of the latest cultural firestorm surrounding teachers. Recent outcry from conservative parents across the state and the country have labeled educators who support the LGBTQ+ community with rainbow flags as “groomers” and “pedophiles,” suggesting the symbols are sexual and don’t belong in schools.

So when that rhetoric first appeared from a parent in the comment section on Skyridge High’s Instagram page, the district took action.

It started on a post from March 15 highlighting a student for an award. She was pictured smiling with a medal around her neck, standing next to her teacher in a classroom. Behind them was a rainbow flag Scotch-taped to the wall.

As soon as the parent pointed out the pride flag, the picture was removed. It was reposted by the school shortly later, cropped to remove the flag. It was deleted again when more parents commented that it still showed nine smaller pride flags — representing identities and intersections within the LGBTQ+ community — sitting in a neat line above the day’s lesson plan. Cutting those out wouldn’t be possible without also cropping the teacher and student. The photo wasn’t reposted.

Social posts and information given to parents and shared with The Salt Lake Tribune show the district’s administrators and some school board members scrambling to address the complaints on social media before even more parents noticed. By the next day, the call was made: To limit controversy, every rainbow flag in the high school would be removed before the first bell rang.

The district said it was following policy prohibiting any “political, religious or personal” displays in the classroom.

An eruption followed anyway, as screenshots from Instagram continued to be shared after the posts were deleted and the community split into sides.

This is the voice that has emerged as the loudest, though, sharing photos and reactions from within the school: queer students and allies at Skyridge High, fighting back and calling for the flags to be returned.

“We aren’t just going to sit quietly and take it,” said Cameron Carnes, a senior at Skyridge High in Lehi and an ally.

“We won’t go away, and we won’t simmer down,” another student told school board members last week.

“We’re the ones here every day,” added Brown. “We’re in this building, and we matter.”

The students have started an online petition, held silent protests and come to school dressed in every rainbow item they can find. They filled the latest school board meeting, too, where many lined up to express their concerns.

And they’re speaking out about what having the pride flags meant to them — and what the empty spaces have done, they say, to embolden classmates who have threatened them, called them slurs and burned rainbow flags on school property since the colors were removed.

(Sarah Hunt | Daily Herald) Hundreds of students, alumni, parents, community members and school district employees attend the Alpine School District Board of Education meeting in American Fork on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

What the flag means to students

Brown said she recognized immediately that the flags were gone when she came to school on March 16.

She’d become accustomed to looking for them every day like an “I Spy” game, knowing where most were and smiling when new ones popped up. One of her favorite teachers had little hand-painted wooden flags up in their classroom, which students had made for them. Those were now removed — but it gave Brown her first idea for getting a similar message up quickly.

She and other students, as well as some teachers, started making signs that said, “All are welcome here.” The junior painted one with people holding hands around the world.

But Brown said she and other students weren’t satisfied. Even the pride flags that had been in the classroom of the teacher who led the school’s gay-straight alliance club were removed. Some questioned how those weren’t considered educational, as they were directly related to a school-approved group, which 40 to 50 kids at Skyridge participate in.

“This flag is not a political statement,” said one student at the school board meeting. “It is a safety beacon. … A flag on the wall may seem small, but it means more than you know to the people who need it.”

The flags represents love, added senior Lauren Lind. “Don’t you want us to be filled with kindness and empathy?”

Later on March 16, still fired up, Brown decided to start an online petition. It got 250 signatures in 24 hours. It now has more than 2,500.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyridge High school in Lehi on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

One of the first people Brown told she was queer was a middle school history teacher. She’d been struggling with accepting that part of herself, she said, especially as a member of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that acting on same-sex attractions is a sin, and in Utah County, where many residents are also members of the faith.

She’d been suffering from depression, she said, in part from the stress over her identity. Brown said her parents are supportive, but she still feared telling them.

So it was a relief when she saw a small pride flag in the teacher’s classroom and felt she had someone to confide in. She opened up to the educator, who she says made her feel safe and also encouraged her to talk to her parents.

“That teacher saved my life,” Brown said. “They were so supportive.”

Shortly after, Brown did tell her parents and they also accepted her identity, she said. But Brown added that not all kids have parents who will react that way. And having a teacher who understands and will listen is critical.

“Just having someone supportive in the school is such a big thing,” Brown said. “My parents can’t follow me to class. And I’m here for most of my day every day. We need people here for us. I don’t get why the district can’t see that. … Teachers have done nothing but try to be there for their students.”

The school district’s response

The Tribune asked to interview Alpine School District board president Sara Hacken and Skyridge High Principal John Wallwork. A spokesperson said any questions directed to them would be referred back to the spokesperson to comment.

Instead, the district released a three-sentence comment to The Tribune about the flags:

“Alpine School District’s Policy 6161 is aligned with state statute and is the expectation for all employees. A culture of inclusion is encouraged for all of our students. Everyone should be treated with respect and civility.”

The spokesperson did not answer questions about whether the policy was being enforced in the same way at other schools in the district or if the school board would consider revising the policy at an upcoming meeting.

The district’s policy states that classrooms are “not public forums for the display or promotion of political, religious, or personal viewpoints, and employees may not use them for such purposes.” It adds that a display that does “not convey the District’s educational message may be removed by the school principal. An educator or employee who uses instructional time or space to convey a political, religious, or personal message may be subject to disciplinary action after being directed not to.”

Utah law doesn’t specifically say anything about flags in the classroom. But it does instruct teachers to never mention their political or religious views; that is cited by Alpine in its code.

Interpreting those instructions and statutes has played out differently in different districts.

Utah’s second largest district, Davis School District in northern Utah, has taken a hard-line approach, banning most flags other than the American flag.

Meanwhile, schools in Salt Lake City School District proudly fly the pride flag with administrative approval — despite some complaints from conservative community members.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rose Park Elementary Principal Nicole Palmer in the Salt Lake City school's atrium, where an LGBTQ pride flag and a Black Lives Matter flag hang along with flags of the United States, other countries, and local tribes, on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Within Alpine, students say they feel the policy isn’t being evenly enforced and is being used to target the LGBTQ+ community. When students packed the school board meeting on March 28, several pointed out that other flags with possible personal or political or religious messages were still allowed at Skyridge.

One senior mentioned that she’d seen a flag for Brigham Young University (which is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), a Confederate flag (representing the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War) and a Gadsden flag (with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” that has become embraced by right-leaning groups) all remain up at Skyridge High.

Brown added that there’s a painting in the school of George Washington praying. “It’s a confusing policy,” she said. “Where are the lines?”

Carnes mentioned another district policy — 7100 — that tasks the board with creating a safe environment free from discrimination and hate. She feels board members are failing that obligation.

Moss Sharp, a junior at the school, questioned if the board members cared more about parent complaints than student inclusion.

Several waved pride flags from the crowded aisles and cheered as Sharp spoke. The students wore T-shirts for Skyridge High tie-dyed in rainbow colors. And a few teachers joined them in the audience. One school board member has posted on Facebook in support.

More than what the flags represent about love and safety, Sharp said, removing the flags has been a louder message: “Bullies at Skyridge learned that Alpine School District won’t protect its queer students.”

A mob and threats

A week after the flags were removed, LGBTQ+ students told The Tribune their classmates had become more vocal about being disapproving of their identities. Brown said she and her friends have frequently been called “fa----s.” When they were walking to school one day, someone rolled down their window and told them to “go kill themselves,” she said. And a few times they were screamed at in the hallways, “You’re disgusting,” she added.

Conflict exploded on March 24. Queer students and allies decided to hold a silent protest that day where they wore rainbow clothes and pins to show they were there and wouldn’t go away, Brown said.

By lunch time, a large group of students gathered in the common area, dressed in red, white and blue and waving a massive American flag in protest of the LGBTQ+ students. The group circled any student in rainbow colors and taunted them, according to several targeted students and witnesses who spoke The Tribune.

The Tribune also reviewed video provided by students. It included slurs being yelled at the students in rainbows and several in the mob ripping pride flags out of their peers’ hands and tearing them to pieces before dumping them in the trash.

Another video shared with The Tribune shows a smaller group of students lighting a rainbow flag on fire outside the front doors of the school.

Several students reported that they were also threatened with knives. By the end of the day, many were crying or had their parents check them out early from school, said Jack Bramwell, an ally and a junior at Skyridge High.

Before the final bell rang, Bramwell said, the school told students to evacuate quickly and police were standing watch. Some kids on his bus, Bramwell said, were clearly experiencing anxiety from it all.

His mom, Hillary Hunt, said she was nervous to hear about what had happened that day, especially coming after recent school shootings in Colorado and Tennessee and with the hoax threats in Utah. She emailed her concerns to the principal that the mob wasn’t immediately broken up and the threats, she felt, not more markedly addressed.

“This is discrimination against a vulnerable minority population, and it breaks my heart,” Hunt wrote. “Please choose to stand with your LGBTQ students. They are our children too.”

Skyridge Principal Wallwork messaged her back, according to the email shared with The Tribune by Hunt, saying he didn’t tell any student what they could wear.

“Regarding Friday’s events,” he said, “there were many students who wanted to show their support for their classmates and friends wearing items that represented the pride flag. There were other students who felt they wanted to express their pride with an American flag. We didn’t tell students wearing ‘rainbow pride’ items that they can’t wear those things and we didn’t take American flags away from students who had those.”

He repeated that in a letter sent to all parents.

Hunt said that was not the point. It wasn’t about clothing, but actions. And it comes, she pointed out, in a district that has banned more than 40 books in the last year, largely about the LGBTQ+ community and race, because conservative parent groups found them inappropriate.

The mother noted the state Legislature, too, has targeted queer kids — banning transgender youth, in this most recent session, from accessing gender-affirming health care.

That’s why the flags matter, she said. “I think these kids live in a state where they know they’re under attack, where they know their identities are less than welcome, less than celebrated.”

And then they come to school, she said, and are asked to hide who they are.

Brown said she and her friends felt genuinely afraid. Some of her classmates have been skipping school, she said, worried about being targeted.

“A school that I’d always felt was inclusive didn’t feel like a safe place any more,” Brown said

Not giving up the fight

In block letters on the front entrance to Skyridge High, a message says: “You belong here.”

The roughly 2,500 kids who attend the Lehi school walk under it every day as they head to classes.

Brown and other LGBTQ+ students say the words are meaningless without action from the school and district to commit to protecting those who are marginalized.

So they’ll keep fighting and showing up at school board meetings, they said, to return the pride flags to the empty spaces where they’ve been taken down. They feel strongly that they belong in the hallways and classrooms of their school.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyridge High school in Lehi on Saturday, April 1, 2023.