Middle-school students at Liberty Bell High School (LBHS) got a lesson in inclusivity, empathy and belonging last week after a student destroyed a Pride flag belonging to another student. The rainbow flag is a symbol of support for LGBTQ rights.
After the student removed the flag from another student’s locker and ripped it in half on Tuesday (Sept. 7), 30 to 40 students decided to wear rainbow-themed clothing and staged a peaceful parade through the school the following day — to significant applause, LBHS principal Crosby Carpenter said in an interview.
“I think that’s pretty bold for a group of middle-school students to take an action like that in a high school,” Carpenter said. “The students wearing the Pride clothing were really proud of themselves — they felt empowered,” he said.
That same day, a handful of students elected to wear American-flag paraphernalia in what some called a “counter-protest,” Carpenter said in a letter to parents and families that was also posted on the school’s Facebook page. Still, Carpenter said in the interview that he wasn’t sure that their action was an intentional counter-protest, and that the groups of students were not at odds with each other.
“Some people will suggest that if you’re uncomfortable with, or don’t agree with what the Pride flag stands for, you should fly an American flag in protest,” Carpenter said on Facebook, calling that notion “misguided.”
“The Pride flag and the American flag are symbols of inclusivity and freedom. This is not a zero sum game. Both can coexist,” he wrote.
There were several other instances in recent days where students on both sides of the divide were singled out for their beliefs and values, Carpenter said in the Facebook post.
Lots of listening, conversations
Carpenter and other staff members conducted multiple discussions with advisory classes and met individually with students and with small groups of students and families. Staff members encouraged students to slow down, practice empathy and grace, and to put themselves in others’ shoes, Carpenter said.
The primary goal was to lead with empathy to understand where the students were coming from. Staff members listened and asked questions to comprehend why the incidents had occurred. The discussions were all well received, he said.
The discussions included concepts of identity and individuality. Every student should feel dignified and that they have a place at Liberty Bell, Carpenter said.
“One of our primary goals at Liberty Bell continues to be fostering a school climate and culture of inclusivity, empathy, and belonging, where every individual feels dignified. With this goal in mind, there is no place for bigotry and hatred — zero tolerance,” Carpenter said on Facebook.
Carpenter noted that the students involved are 12- and 13-year-olds, who learn from their mistakes, particularly when surrounded by caring adults.
These matters and conflicts typically become less of an issue as students mature and become more comfortable with their own identity — and less reactive to others’ identity, Carpenter said. In such a small community, we can’t divide into camps, he said.
“I stand with all students regardless of their political or social views, I stand with what the American flag is intended to represent, I stand with what the Pride flag is intended to represent, I stand with all people,” Carpenter said on Facebook.
The school has taken some punitive action and is in discussion with the students about using the restorative-justice process, which requires both parties to opt in, Carpenter said.
“When you take the time to slow down and ask why, you get a better understanding of where kids are coming from,” he said.