Dear Pelham Community Members,
Over the past few days, I have heard from many of you regarding my decision to ask staff not to wear apparel displaying any symbols which could be considered political in nature. My initial decision asking staff to remove certain masks was perceived by some to be politically motivated. I want to assure you that this was never my intention. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that the implementation of this policy was inconsistent. As such, I issued guidance to our staff this past weekend that, going forward, we are committed to applying a fair and even-handed approach by disallowing all political speech regardless of content or viewpoint.
This school year, we have heard directly from students and families that the Thin Blue Line flag worn by numerous well-intended staff members was perceived as threatening. While this symbol is understood by some as a sign of respect, remembrance, and sacrifice, others feel it is intimidating. Our schools must be places where students feel safe and respected and it is for that reason that I asked staff to remove the symbol while in the workplace. This was in no way meant to disrespect the legacy of honor and sacrifice of officers in our own community, or to convey a negative bias toward law enforcement in general.
To be very clear, we support and respect our police officers. I feel extremely fortunate to have a strong relationship with both departments in our town. Both Chief Pallett and Chief Carpenter represent the uniform with courage and distinction and have led their respective departments in a manner that is second to none. We have worked hand-in-hand to keep our students safe, and we are a stronger community as a result of their service and dedication.
As a District, we recognize that our schools must not only be places where students feel physically safe, but also where they feel emotionally safe. Throughout last spring and summer, we heard from many students, alumni and families who said they did not feel valued for who they were because of the color of their skin. As a District, we are committed to creating a more just school culture where all are respected and valued. Part of that work is hearing their voices and taking action, even when it is difficult or controversial.
I’d like to emphasize that these issues concern the political speech of staff. School law draws a distinction between what is permissible speech for staff and students and, overall, students have different First Amendment freedoms within the school environment. Therefore, students have been and will continue to be permitted to wear apparel expressing political viewpoints and messages unless the messaging results in a disruption to the school setting.
The ability to talk to one another and find connections across life experiences and cultures is the only path toward healing for ourselves, our schools, our community, and our country. I held a number of open meetings with concerned staff members to discuss these issues this past week, and I am committed to keeping those lines of communication open so that together we make sure that students feel safe in our schools and confident that their voices truly do matter.
Cheryl H. Champ, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools