Tensions were high during the Sunol school board meeting on Tuesday as parents, teachers and trustees alike all argued over a resolution to ban Sunol Glen School from displaying any flags that are not the U.S. or state flag.
Before voting 2-1 to adopt the contentious resolution, which many argued was targeting the LGBTQ+ pride flag, the board was interrupted by what seemed to be a shouting match between various members of the public who attended the meeting.
It even got to a point where Alameda County sheriff deputies, who were in attendance, had to get involved when Board President Ryan Jergensen told everyone to leave after calling disruptive many of the people who were shouting during and after the public comment part of the item discussion was over.
"As the chair I am trying to keep an organized meeting," Jergensen told the packed room before asking them to leave. "This is about civility and discourse. Please keep it under control. I know people are emotional -- a lot of us are and a lot of us are keeping it in control."
The Sunol school board had first heard about some concerns from a few residents during the Aug. 1 board meeting where four people spoke out against "special interest groups" possibly being allowed to fly their flags at the school.
But according to Trustee Ted Romo, who cast the lone dissenting vote Tuesday, the issue at hand really stemmed from when the school hung up a LGBTQ pride flag on the fence outside of the school back in June. He said that the flag has gone up ever since the 2021 Sunol school board passed a resolution in support of the LGBTQ+ community, including recognizing Pride Month during June.
And when someone tore down the flag, which led Superintendent Molleen Barnes to raise the flag on the pole in order to keep it safe, that's when Romo said the issues started.
According to Romo, James Lowder -- a parent of a Sunol Glen student who previously ran for a spot on the board -- had written a letter to Barnes stating that if the pride flag was being raised, why couldn't they also put up Christian flags or flags of the National Rifle Association.
"This resolution came up when a couple of community members approached the board and the superintendent requesting various different flags be flown at the school," Jergensen said.
Because Barnes did not want to make a decision on what flags to raise, Jergensen told the board to take over and after those four residents, including Lowder, spoke at the August meeting. He said the district legal team's advice was to draft the resolution.
The resolution specifically cites California Government Code that states it is "neither federal nor California law requires elementary school districts to display any other flags besides the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the State of California."
"The Sunol Glen Unified School District desires to display only those flags required by law," the resolution reads.
It also states that the school will effectively immediately "display only the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the State of California at the Sunol Glen School."
The premise behind Jergensen's decision to draft the resolution was that it seems more fair and inclusive to only display the U.S. flag and the state flag rather than picking and choosing other flags, which could lead to divisiveness.
"I believe everyone needs to be treated fairly and equally. Schools need to be a place of inclusion where all students are safe," Jergensen said. "My concern is that when a school starts endorsing any particular view, that can be divisive."
"While certain issues may not appear divisive to some, there are many deeply held views on various sides of a given issue," he added. "Whether individual personal views align with those or others, or not, the school should be inclusive of all. Individual views are irrelevant when considering inclusion of all."
But after opening up with those and other similar remarks, what followed was roughly 30 minutes of emotional teachers who loudly demanded the resolution be struck down or amended; shouting matches between residents in the room; and residents accusing fellow Sunolians of wrongfully calling them bigots.
The divide in the room was based on several public commenters who either denounced the resolution saying it was discriminatory in nature because it would not show inclusivity at the school or who supported it saying the resolution legally protects the school from lawsuits that could come from people who want to display special interest groups.
A large group of teachers and staff kicked off the public comments by reading from a letter they had sent to the board and district denouncing the resolution.
They said that by outright banning flags like the pride flag, rather than amending the resolution to allow Barnes to make executive decisions on what flags to raise, sends a negative message to families.
"We would never want our LGBTQ students, their families, or any other group for that matter, to feel like they're not wanted, supported or safe in our school," a teacher read from the letter.
"Another concern that we feel is that the board is not accurately representing the goals and ideals of swampland schools, historical inclusiveness of all students and families, as well as the current majority of the teaching staff," another one of the teachers said.
Their overall message: the resolution is and has created division within the community and is taking away from more pressing issues.
Trustee Linda Hurley and Jergensen, however, doubled down on their stance that the resolution is not targeting the LGTBQ+ community nor is it limiting the free speech of students and teachers.
Hurley added by saying that the main issue at hand was based on the possibility of being sued from someone who was not allowed to raise a flag, even though the pride flag went up.
She said that despite her experience as a teacher and nurse who has friends and family members who identify as part of the LGTBQ+ community, she had to weigh in favor of protecting the school from a hypothetical, but very costly lawsuit.
"I talked to another group of lawyers that represent schools and I am being told ... that our little school which is a one school, school district would be very vulnerable to any kind of legal action," she said. "One lawsuit could take the school down."
"I have been voted as a custodial person -- a trustee of this board -- to watch out for the children and the school. The welfare of the school," she added. "I feel it incumbent upon me, a fiduciary responsibility to watch out for the safety of the furtherance of this school."
Sunol resident Debbie Ferrari also backed up Jergensen and Hurley's positions during her public comments while claiming that she did not appreciate Romo sending mixed messages to the community and that the sense of there being discrimination in Sunol through this resolution is a fabricated lie.
She said that instead of making "incendiary and intimidating remarks about fellow citizens," and calling them and fellow board members bigots, Romo and others need to focus on taking actions to make the school more inclusive -- without raising any additional flags.
"If a non-public flag or symbol is raised it could seem to separate a certain group, it can sometimes make people feel bad or humiliated," she said. "If you're truly worried that some students feel alienated, bring them together ... do something to really help, don't just try to appear as if you're helping."
"The important point is that no one should discriminate and there's no evidence that anyone in our community has discriminated against anyone. It's a made up false premise," she added.
However, Romo reiterated the feelings of disappointment from what seemed to be the majority of the people who attended the meeting, given the loud applause that was heard in the room after people spoke against the resolution compared to the applause from the pro-resolution side.
"The district is being curbed by this widespread broad-brush resolution," Romo said during final remarks. "In effect, the resolution broadly bans free speech at Sunol Glen, including teachers and their ability to put a pride flag on their desk."
He also made several points, from the perspective of an attorney, that the district has government protected freedom of speech rights that give them the power of choosing what flags it wasn't to raise and which ones it doesn't.
"It's my legal opinion that flying the pride flag during the month of June does not create liability for the district to necessitate the passage of a resolution," Romo said.