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Fallout in Sunol over board's decision to ban school from flying LGBTQ pride flag

Surprise afternoon board meeting on personnel issues raises eyebrows
An LGBTQ pride flag blows in the wind. (Stock photo)

Current and former members of the Sunol Glen School community are calling out the current Sunol school board majority saying their decision to approve a resolution that limits the school to only display the U.S. and state flags is not only wrong, but the way it was passed was undemocratic.

And Tuesday's announcement of a special and closed-session meeting happening on Wednesday, which is being criticized by residents for its last-minute nature, has only furthered the board's distrust with many community members.

On Sept. 12, the Sunol Glen Unified School District Board of Trustees voted 2-1 to adopt the flag resolution that was written up after a small group of four people spoke out during the Aug. 1 board meeting against "special interest groups" possibly being allowed to fly their flags at the school.

Since then, many residents, parents and other community members have been voicing their opposition against the resolution saying that it has been negatively affecting the families of the small school.

"I've seen Sunol Glen parents crying over what's going on," longtime Sunol resident Andrew Turnbull said. "It's affecting the middle school students that I've talked to. They're bummed out that they're banning the (pride) flag."

Throughout the meeting last week, Board President Ryan Jergensen held his ground saying the resolution was not directed toward any specific flag and that it would help the district remove itself from endorsing any one particular group.

"It by no means restricts the free speech of teachers, it does not restrict the free speech of students," Jergensen said during the Sept. 12 meeting. "It is only restricting the speech of the district itself."

Jergensen was not available for comment by time of publication.

However, according to Trustee Ted Romo, who cast the lone dissenting vote, the issue first started when the school raised an LGBTQ+ pride flag on the school's flagpole back in June, after the flag was torn down from the fence outside of the school.

Denise Kent Romo, Ted's wife and a former school board trustee, said that when Superintendent Molleen Barnes raised the flag on the flagpole, it was disappointing to see Jergensen support the now-adopted resolution rather than seeing the school board denounce the flag initially being torn down.

"Instead of showing support for students after the flag was torn off the fence, nobody said anything," Denise Kent Romo told this news organization. "This all started because the flag was torn down and it was put on the flagpole to keep it safe and I think that right there says a lot about the origins of this issue."

One of the main arguments in favor of the resolution that Trustee Linda Hurley touched on was the potential legal risks that the small school could face if the resolution didn't pass and certain groups were not allowed to raise their flags at the school.

Hurley was also not available for comments by time of publication.

During the Sept. 12 meeting, Hurley cited a case in Boston where the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the city violated the free speech rights when it denied conservative activist Harold Shurtleff's request to fly a Christian flag on one of the city's three flagpoles.

She said that without the adopted resolution, the small school would have been at risk of similar legal fees that could have affected the schools limited funds.

However, Alameda County Board of Education Area 7 Trustee Cheryl Cook-Kallio, whose daughter attended the school and who personally knew several Sunolians, said that the Boston case is significantly different from what Sunol is going through.

She explained that Boston had been accepting hundreds of other applications from groups and that the city gave up its government speech in doing so. That means the flagpole was now a public forum, which is not the case with Sunol, which has some level of government speech in its decisions on which flags to raise.

She also said that as someone who has a master's degree in the Constitution, she has an issue with what she sees as a limit on freedom of speech. She challenged Hurley's lawsuit concerns saying that yes, the school could see potential legal issues, but only because the LGTBQ+ pride flag itself is protected speech.

"What they've done is they targeted themselves for litigation," Cook-Kallio said.

What she means is that according to a Feb. 6 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union regarding prohibitions on LGBTQ+ pride flags and other pride displays, districts are not allowed to ban students and teachers from displaying these flags.

"While speech in public schools may be subject to more restrictions than other arenas, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that First Amendment protections extend to 'teachers and students,' neither of whom 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'" according to the letter.

Cook-Kallio said that the flag represents inclusivity and that it's important to have it around for students who, even if they don't know they need it, can see it and be able to know their community has a place in the school.

"The rights of our LGBTQ students are very much protected by the state and federal government," Denise Kent Romo said. "They are not a special interest group. They are a marginalized group of people that the school must show that they support."

But while many parents and residents did touch on the negative implications the resolution has on not being able to display LGBTQ+ pride flags at the school, the overall issue that was shared with elected officials like Cook-Kallio was that the meeting itself was undemocratic.

Most of the criticisms were surrounding the 20 minutes of allotted time that many said not only was too short of a time to hear the public, but was also not being paused in between speakers, which cut the time for public comments even more.

"The teachers should have been allowed to speak without even counting toward that 20 minutes, because they're the ones that are delivering the product to the school," Cook-Kallio said.

"Every board I've ever been on we were really sensitive to the fact that we couldn't go on for nine or 10 hours," Cook-Kallio added. "So to shut down comments like that I don't think it's right. I don't think it's what a public school board should be doing. I certainly don't think trustees in the school district should do that."

Pleasanton Vice Mayor Jack Balch, who graduated from Sunol Glen in 1991, also took issue with how the meeting was run and said that even though he does not know Sunol's governing board policies, they should have done more to make sure more voices were heard.

"What bothers me the most, I would say, would be the failure of democracy," Pleasanton Vice Mayor Jack Balch said. "The community has a right to be heard they were not given that opportunity."

He said while he does understand the complexity surrounding the flag displaying resolution, he did take issue -- as did many others -- with Jergensen kicking out everyone in the room after many people began shouting over each other and interrupting the meeting.

He said that for such a highly contentious item, the board should have had more foresight and could have looked at increasing the 20-minute time cap, shortening the time for each public comment or continuing discussing the item at a future meeting.

"I do consider it my job to listen to the people and hear what they are saying and only after listening to them, do I think it would be appropriate to make any decision," Balch said.

There are also several people who said that apart from seeing the effect the resolution has had on the students and parents at the school, they feel unsafe of outside groups of people who supported the resolutions and who had shown up at the Sept. 12 meeting simply to agitate the community.

Crystal Freitas-Diamond, a parent of a Sunol Glen kindergarten student who also has a son who teaches at the school, told the Weekly that when she attended the Sept. 12 meeting, she had seen a lot of people who weren't Sunol Glen parents, there simply to agitate the community.

She said that even as someone who champions speaking out for things she believes in, she had been fearful of people who have been harassing her on social media on her viewpoints she shared against the resolution during her comments at the meeting.

"Somebody at that meeting took my name down to find me and to harass and bully me because they didn't like my opinion. Even though their side won," Freitas-Diamond said. "If those are the allies and the support to the people who were for the ban, that's got to be an issue."

Cook-Kallio and Denise Kent Romo also confirmed that there were certain agitators outside and in the board meeting last week, which spoke on how dangerous the resolution was in opening the small town to outside political factions that only wanted to push their agendas, which might be similar to the board's majority.

"It's just a very draconian resolution that was not well thought out," Denise Kent Romo said. "When it was written, I don't think the teachers were consulted. I don't think many parents were consulted. It was just something that seemed like it was just done very quickly, and jammed through, based on personal and religious beliefs."

However, while Romo and Diamond voiced their fears of certain groups coming into Sunol, Jergensen voiced his own fears for his family in an email to this news organization where he responded to claims that he is tied with those groups.

"I have no ties to any hate groups," Jergensen wrote in the email. "I am hurt that you assume that members of our community have ties to hate groups. There is no evidence of this."

The Sunol school board will be meeting for its special and closed-session meeting on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.

According to a media advisory from the SunolGlen4All group of parents and community members, the meeting will take place to dismiss the district's legal counsel Josh Stevens, who has been with the district for over 15 years. According to the media advisory it is also suspected that "other dismissals will be discussed, such as Superintendent Molleen Barnes."

Even though Jergensen posted on the Sunol Glen Families Facebook group on Tuesday saying that the meeting is a routine one to "try to save the school money, and streamline things so more money will go toward kids' education," many people on the same post said the trust is broken and that they are going to need more assurance that Barnes or any other teacher won't lose their jobs for not supporting the flag resolution.

"Once they remove the legal counsel and perhaps the superintendent, all of the teachers and staff are at risk for retaliation and worse," according to the media advisory. "The overthrow of this school is nothing short of deceitful, motivated by personal agendas, and is clearly not good for the school, its student body, or its future."


About the Author: Christian Trujano

Christian Trujano, a Bay Area native and San Jose State alum, joined Embarcadero Media in May 2022 following his graduation. He is an award-winning student journalist who has covered stories in San Jose ranging from crime to higher education.
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