A teacher in Reno, Nevada, is quietly protesting a ruling from her school board that says she can't engage in political speech in the classroom — including the display of a pride flag.
Jennifer Leja teaches 7th and 8th grade in the Washoe County School District. Leja, who is bisexual, told BuzzFeed News she's the only openly LGBTQ teacher at her school.
"I usually have a flock of 7th and 8th graders who are trying to learn who they are and how they identify, and they come towards me," she said.
She's always kept a pride flag in her classroom, along with an assortment of rainbow paraphernalia that students have given her over her five years of teaching. But this year, the flag had to go.
Washoe County School District issued a new policy this year that bans "partisan political activities" during school hours. The policy states that "any signage that is displayed on District property that is, or becomes, political in nature must be removed or covered."
When Leja read the policy, she reached out to Trustee Andrew Caudill to ask if the policy included LGBTQ issues. She asked if, for example, she could display rainbows or mention that she has a girlfriend.
In an email shared with BuzzFeed News, Caudill replied that yes, LGBTQ issues were included.
"The courts have held LGBTQ+ issues to be political speech and thus, the rainbow flag [is considered] to be political speech, so it cannot be expressed through clothing and other means, such as displaying a flag in your class," he told her.
He also added that she is allowed to talk about her own sexuality or partner.
"Who you are is not impacted by this policy, only what is expressed in class through visual aids," he told her.
But for Leja, the pride flag is very much part of who she is.
"The issue that I have with it is, I don’t think my existence and my identity is a political issue," she said. "I think that being able to have a rainbow flag is as much a part of my identity as anything else."
She added, "It’s legal in every state to get married; it’s legal for LGBT people to exist in this country right now, so I don’t see how it's a political issue."
It's not just about her. Leja said she's been a go-to person for students who are out or questioning their identities.
"It’s important for me because I feel like there are students who spend their lives in the closet and especially in middle school; that is when students are starting to figure out where they are," she said. "They go through that time period where they don’t know who they are or what they like."
For example, she said, she has a transgender student this year, and she wants to make sure that student knows they are supported in her classroom. The policy does not affect students, who can still express opinions or wear items deemed political.
Leja posted about the issue on TikTok and shared how many rainbows fill her classroom because, as she says in the video, she just really likes rainbows.
"It started off in my first year of teaching with just a rainbow flag; pretty much all of the rainbows added since then have been students giving me rainbow gifts," she said.
Caudill told BuzzFeed News that the policy doesn't just include LGBTQ issues, but "other kinds of speech such as Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, NRA, etc."
"It is inappropriate for the District as a government entity to select only speech it agrees with. As a result, it is in the best interests of our learning communities to ask staff to refrain from all single-issue political speech," he said.
He added that the policy is based on the US Supreme Court's Janus decision from 2018.
When asked about potential consequences for teachers who defy the policy, Caudill said, "All staff are expected to follow all Board Policies."
He added, "But I want to be abundantly clear, the policy does not require staff to hide their own sexuality. Teachers can let students know their sexuality, or mention their significant others, if they wish, regardless of sexuality. The policy does not impact who a teacher is, it only impacts the advocacy for a specific political position."
The school district's policy also includes taking a stance on Black Lives Matter, which has drawn criticism, and students have petitioned the board to reverse its decision.