LGBTQ+ students in Utah County walk out to protest school board’s silence on removing pride flags

More than 100 kids stood across from Skyridge High School on Monday carrying signs and chanting, “We belong here.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Max Bingham cheers with Skyridge High School students during a walkout in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

Lehi • Filling the sidewalk across from their school, the students shouted for more than hour until their voices cracked. And even then, some still continued with the chant: “We belong here.”

A few people driving past in this conservative Utah County town yelled slurs from car windows. But the kids just shouted louder to drown out the insults.

More than 100 students at Skyridge High School joined the walkout Monday morning, leaving class halfway through second period. They wore rainbow-colored everything — shirts and socks and suspenders and stickers — and waved little rainbow flags. Their message of LGBTQ+ belonging was meant for the administrators of their school and for the school board members over Alpine District, whom they hoped would listen.

Board members had ordered in March that Skyridge High staff remove all pride flags from inside the school. The issue came to the forefront after a photo of a student — with a flag visible in the background — was posted on the school’s Instagram page. Parents commented about the flags being used to “groom” kids by “pedophile” teachers and said they don’t belong in schools — repeating rhetoric that has been seen nationwide.

Alpine District — the largest school district in Utah — said the flags were prohibited under its policy banning any “political, religious or personal” displays in schools, and Skyridge took the colorful symbols down from classrooms and hallways.

Now, “we’re letting the school board know we’re not going to go away,” said Olivia Brown, a junior at Skyridge High, who is bisexual.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk out of class at Skyridge High School in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

Brown launched an online petition when the flags were taken down and helped organize the rally Monday, which came a little more than month after students went to a school board meeting to ask the elected representatives to address the policy that they say has caused them harm. The board has not taken up the issue at its recent meetings. And the students said they are sick of the silence.

“They preach that they hear students. But what do we have to do to warrant a response?” asked Cameron Carnes, a senior and an LGBTQ+ ally who also started the walkout to draw more attention to the issue. “They just haven’t said anything.”

The Salt Lake Tribune asked for comment Monday from Alpine School District, as well as the school board’s President Sara Hacken and Vice President Julie King. The district’s spokesperson said: “We are aware of an off-campus demonstration that happened today. We understand that some students participated and returned to school without incident.” He did not comment on the underlying policy being protested.

The kids waved the same flags that have been banned to show the school that they are here, they said, and that having the flags made them feel safer, pointing to the hate thrown at them by the passersby.

They smiled and danced and sang on the sunny spring morning to Taylor Swift and Dolly Parton and Disney songs. They twirled under rainbow umbrellas. They ran with rainbow flags around their necks as capes. One student hand made rainbow pom-pom earrings and stuck 15 pride flags — like a headband — into their hat.

One held a sign that said: “Alpine, it’s time to listen to your students.” Another said, “HEAR US.” A few of the kids wore shirts that said, “Skyridge strong.” Some alumni joined them.

Jay Kell, a senior who is pansexual, had on a knitted shawl that his grandma made him with rainbow stripes. In ninth grade, he said, he started questioning his gender and sexual identity.

Kell said he “just never really fit in,” but when he saw a flag for the gay-straight alliance club, he found a group of kids like him.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jay Kell sports a rainbow shawl made by his grandmother, as he and other high school students walked out at Skyridge High School in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

When the pride flags were first take down at Skyridge High, LGBTQ+ students there said their classmates felt emboldened to harass them. There was a group of five counterprotesters Monday, also students at Skyridge High, who stood across the curb, carrying American flags and flags with former President Donald Trump’s name on them. They shouted into a megaphone and played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Senior Camille Weisenbeck, who is bisexual and marched with the LGBTQ+ students, responded to that opposition by saying: “I would rather be out here and face violence than be in school and be silenced.”

Police officers patrolled between the two groups.

Overall, there was more love than hate, with other cars driving by honking in support of the LGBTQ+ kids. And those students also shared their snacks with the classmates opposing them.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students chant "you are loved" to counterprotesters as they walk by, during a walkout at Skyridge High School in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

“That kid is in my math class,” said Ira Phillips, a senior who is lesbian and gender nonconforming who uses they/them pronouns. “I’m scared to talk about who I am because of kids like him. We all just want to be loved.”

Students at Alpine’s Westlake High and Lehi High also staged walkouts on Monday in solidarity.

Alpine has not responded to The Tribune’s question about whether the policy of not hanging pride flags is enforced at its other schools. And Utah law doesn’t specifically say anything about flags in the classroom. It instructs teachers, though, to never mention their political or religious views.

Interpreting that 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.

The LGBTQ+ students who rallied Monday said they don’t see the pride flag as political; they see it as a symbol of their identities and a sign that classrooms are safe places for them.

“It’s hard when other people try to make us hide who we are,” said Max Bingham, a sophomore who is omnisexual.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk out of class at Skyridge High School in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

Some students don’t have support at home to be who they are, a few kids noted, and school is their place to embrace their identities. One student offered to take any of his friends’ pride gear and store it in his car, if they didn’t feel like they could take it to their houses.

The students said they are going to keep fighting for the flags. Even those graduating, like Carnes and Baxter, said they planned to wear rainbow pins or ribbons at their ceremonies next month.

They hugged outside their school before returning to class at 11 a.m., walking together under the sign above the front doors at Skyridge High that says, “You belong here,” like an echo of their chants.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyridge High School students walk back into the school after staging a walkout, in Lehi, on Monday, May 15, 2023.