Students at the Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, Mass., tore down rainbow decorations and chanted “U.S.A are my pronouns” during the school’s spirit day celebrating Pride month on Friday, June 2.
The school-approved spirit day was organized by the school’s student-led LGBTQ+ and allies “Spectrum Club.”
According to a letter to parents sent by Marshall Simonds Principal Cari Perchase, the Spectrum Club hung up “Happy Pride Month” signs, rainbow banners, posters with slogans such as “Why it’s not ok to say ‘That’s so gay’,” and handed out rainbow stickers.
Students and faculty were also asked to wear rainbow for the Pride spirit day.
Some students who opposed the middle school’s Pride celebrations tore down the banners and signs, and, according to Principal Perchase’s letter, were seen “being inappropriate” with the rainbow stickers.
The protesting middle schoolers chanted “U.S.A. are my pronouns” in the halls, and wore red, white, and blue clothes and face paint instead of the Pride-friendly rainbow colors.
“I fully respect that our diverse community has diverse opinions and beliefs. I also respect individuals’ right to express their opinions through clothing choices and freedom of speech,” Perchase said in her letter. “When one individual or group of individuals’ beliefs and actions result in the demeaning of another individual or group, it is completely unacceptable.”
“I am truly sorry that a day meant for you to celebrate your identity turned into a day of intolerance. Schools are supposed to be a safe place for ALL students and faculty. Some community members’ actions created an unsafe environment for many of our students, caregivers, and faculty,” she said.
Christine Steiner, a parent of one of the counter-protesting middle schoolers, said that her daughter did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but felt coerced to participate in the Pride event, speaking to WCVB Boston.
“Some of the kids threw the stickers on the ground. But I can only speak for my daughter, she just didn’t want to wear that to school. It’s not that she wanted to hurt anybody’s feelings,” said Steiner.
Steiner said her daughter was offended by a poster in the school that said “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through the mountains.”
Other parents and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activists spoke at a Burlington Select Board meeting Monday night to call out the “intolerance and homophobia” of the protesting middle schoolers.
Nancy Bonassera, co-chair of the Burlington Equity Coalition and a parent of students at Marshall Simonds, gave a statement to the Select Board calling for “consequences” for the students who participated in the counter-protest.
“Students were invited to show their pride and wear rainbow clothing in celebration of Pride month,” Bonassera said. “On that same day there was a counter-demonstration in response to what should have been a day to celebrate, where students wore red, white and blue clothing, chanted ‘my pronouns are U.S.A.,’ and destroyed rainbow decorations at the school.”
“These displays of intolerance and homophobia are unacceptable and impact the whole community,” she said. “We call upon the school administration to address and provide consequences for the students who participated in the counter-protest.”
Bonassera said that without “any concrete and direct action these incidents will occur again and increase in severity,” calling upon Burlington to hire a DEI Director.
Carl Foss, a former school committee member, former representative on the town’s DEI subcommittee and parent to elementary school students in Burlington said he was “shocked and saddened” by the incident at Marshall Simonds.
“I thought Burlington was a ‘safer’ place than Texas or Florida, obviously I was wrong,” Foss said.
“Upon reflection, my reaction shows my privilege,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about being accepted. I don’t have to worry about others using the American flag, a symbol that is supposed to unite us as a community, to intimidate or harass me.”
“With this privilege, I am able to have beliefs like this would never happen in Burlington,” he said, adding that “this type of intolerant rhetoric starts in the home.”
“It would be naïve of us to think that what happened at the middle school won’t escalate to something more tragic in the future,” said parent Jessika Dubay-Dang. “It isn’t going to go magically away; it will get worse.”
Burlington Public Schools Superintendent Eric Conti also sent a letter to parents, saying that the increase in violence against LGBTQ+ individuals “has no place in our schools.”
“We ask all staff, teachers, and members of the Burlington Public School community to join us in taking a stand against homophobia and identity-directed hateful actions,” Conti wrote.
“Like any spirit day celebration at MSMS, participation is optional. Respectful behavior across the entire student body, however, is non negotiable,” he wrote.
Burlington School Committee Chair Martha Simon condemned the counter-protest at a meeting Tuesday night, but did not reveal specifics on any disciplinary actions being taken against the students.