Controversy simmers over signs in Arlington, Va. high school

- A Northern Virginia high school is facing criticism after several politically-suggestive signs were posted on the walls inside of the building. 

The signs were put up at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia by teachers and are meant to promote diversity and equality. However, critics say they do the exact opposite.

Students say the signs are in rainbow colors and started popping up in all corners of the high school about two weeks ago, but some students say this issue is very black or white. They also say that the signs and politics don’t belong in school.   

About two dozen or so students have joined together to express concern over the signs. They say more and more keep popping up around the school and are being posted by a group of teachers.

Fox 5 was sent some photos of the signs posted up in classrooms and in the hallways.

The concerned students and their parents are saying that the signs are politically biased, which they contend violates school policy and shows a double standard.  They also believe if these were conservative beliefs on the wall it wouldn’t be allowed in the first place.

Fox 5 reached out to the Arlington School board several times Friday but have not heard back. However we did obtain copies of some letters that were written by the teachers that put up the signs. They are addressed to the parents of the concerned students.

Letter from teacher 1:

Mrs. Denny, Mrs. Mimberg and Mrs. Piper,

Thanks for your interest and questions about the “Patriots Know” signs.

Dr. Pasi asked me to reply to your inquiries, as I was one of the teachers leading the poster posting at Yorktown.

The two phrases in the poster (“Science is Real”, and “Facts are not Political”) I felt compelled to put up on the wall in my physics classroom in the aftermath of the many statements coming out of our government that were discrediting and politicizing science, and creating a threatening climate for scientists in this country. As a scientist, it is very discouraging; as a science teacher, it is nearly debilitating. My job is to train future scientists and especially non-scientists. And that mindset is poisonous. These are operating principles that shouldn’t have to be explicitly stated, but for some reason now need to be.

The president’s executive order banning immigrants prompted the expansion of this idea. Many teachers started talking last weekend about how this has caused considerable worry and fear among our immigrant students. Yorktown has been a place of inclusion and welcome in very explicit ways for many years, and many teachers felt we needed to respond to this with a re-emphasis of these values. We want all students in our school to feel welcome, valued, and respected. And we want all students to know this is the expectation. This is what lead to the formation of the poster that teachers have been posting in their classroom. We, as teachers in the school, are against discrimination, racism, sexism, and injustice. This isn’t a political statement. And these posters are meant to communicate that whatever is going on outside, at Yorktown we stand for respect and kindness. 

We’ve had incidences in the school in the past few months where racist remarks have been made by students to our immigrant students, to our Jewish students, and to our black students. We’ve had anti-gay graffiti on our campus, and messages telling Hispanics to get out of the country. Students who are feeling this behavior is acceptable may need these visible reminders that it is not tolerated. Students who are victims need the visible reminder that we support them. Regardless of anybody’s political beliefs, this school has always and will always support a climate of inclusion and respect.

An education at Yorktown has always included more than merely science and history content as shown through our longstanding commitment to social emotional education and Yorktown ROCS. Teachers have a vocation, not just a job. We care about cultivating kids to create caring citizens who find value in differences, not fear.

I hope this helps to provide some context to these signs. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive responses from students and teachers, and have appreciated hearing how it has sparked conversations both in the classroom, the lunchroom, and the dinner table. I know that some may initially perceive this as political, but we worked hard to try to create something that wasn’t partisan and that sent a strong positive message that might be challenging, thought provoking, or comforting.

Thanks for your interest, and I’m happy to discuss this more if needed. And please feel free to disseminate this if it is helpful.

- Aaron Schuetz

Letter from teacher # 2:

Dear Ms. Erdos and Arlington County School Board Members,

My name is Deborah Waldron and I am a teacher at Yorktown High School. I am writing to express my dismay that the signs the YHS faculty posted (seen below)  to support and welcome all of our students were removed as they were deemed to be political in nature.

I have read through the sign numerous times; I have also studied the APS and YHS vision statements. I can find nothing in these signs that are not supported by, and in fact promoted by, the values and beliefs of Arlington Public School. I would like to know why these signs were removed.

As one of the teachers who helped design and distribute these signs, I am aware of the significant forethought that went into the exact phrases that were chosen. We wanted phrases that were factual, non-partisan, and essential to maintaining the community spirit of Yorktown while also supporting the academic mission of Yorktown. Although many of us, for instance, wanted to include the phrase Black Lives Matter, we choose not to. This phrase, although one hundred percent true and factual, belongs to a political group and was therefore inappropriate for a school setting. Similarly, no signs were posted that said “Love Trumps Hate”  or “Stronger Together” as they would clearly convey political affiliation.

The phrases we picked were meant to focus on our need to be a true community where everyone is respected, valued, and supported.  As you are aware, our Yorktown community has been challenged recently through instances of racism, anti-gay sentiments,  anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-Semitic statements. None of these ideas belong in our school and none of them promote the safe environment needed for students to learn. Now, more than ever, the sentiments of these signs are essential for helping our students learn to live in a diverse society where differences can be discussed in a respectful and non-threatening manner.

To help explain our intentions, below are listed the phrases on our sign along with the reasoning for including these phrases.

Our sign included the following phrases:

Facts are Not Political:

As educators, one of our many jobs is to teach facts. Facts are simply that—facts. They do not have political meaning and stating facts should not be construed as political. For example, six million Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust. Despite the well documented evidence of the Holocaust, there are groups who deny its existence or the scope of its devastation. As educators, it is our job to teach facts and help students recognize that all facts may not be comfortable to them or their belief system.

Diversity Strengths Us:

The APS Core values state, “We value all students, staff, and families in our diverse, inclusive school community.”  If this is true, I cannot imagine a reason why a statement that supports the core values of APS should be removed.

Science is Real:

As a physics teacher, I feel quite passionately about this statement. Regardless of personal opinion or political beliefs, the global temperature of the Earth is rising. As a scientist, I teach this in my classroom as it has been supported through numerous peer reviewed and repeated experimentations. That is the beauty of science—we check each other’s work and do not validate or accept findings until they are supported by repeated observations. In 1989, for instance, two scientists at the University of Utah announced that they had discovered “cold fusion”-the ability to produce nuclear fusion and therefore amazing amount of energy at room temperature. However, as scientists began to attempt to replicate the findings, significant flaws were discovered in the methodology. Despite public excitement and interest, the ideas of cold fusion were quickly rejected. Science is a process, it is real, and as educators we need students to recognize the value and validity of science. 

Women’s Rights are Human Rights:

The first known use of the phrase women’s rights are human rights is from abolitionists in the 1830s. The phrase was again used in the 1980s by the Head of the New York City Human Rights Commissions and by Cecilia Medina, a Chilean legal expert. The phrase has also been used by The Canadian head of the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development and is also included in the Malaysian Charter on Human Rights.[i]

In 1995, Hilary Clinton, speaking for the United States as the First Lady, spoke at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.  During the course of her speech, Mrs. Clinton said "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all”. She continued,

As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes—the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.[ii]

The YHS mission statement delineates that students will deliberately promote and support the worth and dignity of themselves and other and demonstrate moral and ethical habits in their lives. The phrase ‘Women’s Rights are Human’s Rights” has been used to target slavery and to promote the self-worth of young girls and women throughout the world. I certainly believe that these are values for which APS stands.

Justice is for All:

The state of Virginia requires us to say the pledge of allegiance every day. It ends “And justice for all”. This statement simply reinforces and restates something that students hear every day. And, quite honestly, its importance to our society makes it worth repeating.

We’re All immigrants:

This may be the most controversial statement on the sign as it is actually not true. Native Americans are not immigrants. Many African American families were brought here by force so the term immigrant is not appropriate either. The goal, though, was to high-light that none of us were here originally—our families all came from somewhere else. The only difference between current immigrants and past immigrants is the time period. This is an extremely comforting and supporting statement for students who are current immigrants and is an important way to help welcome these students into our community

However, I recognize the concern for African Americans and Native Americas and, if this is problem phrase, it could be altered to “All Students Are Valued” , “We Respect Everyone”, or “We are One Nation”.  Both are true statement although neither is as powerful for our immigrant students at YHS.

Kindness is everything:

There are conservative students, liberal students, GLBTQ students, black students, immigrant students, students of numerous faiths, and students with no faith.  At times, we will all disagree on various ideas and topics but that disagreement does not mean that we cannot be kind. Teaching students this skill may be the most important thing I do as an educator.

We Are Yorktown

The YHS mission statement concludes that students will be able to “demonstrate moral and ethical habits in their lives.” This sign is simply a public expression of this important idea. We are all different and yet we are all Yorktown. Our differences strengthen us and help us grow. We are one and we will support each other. Because, We are Yorktown.

This sign emerges within the context of a political climate, but it is not political. This sign is not partisan and only states facts, not opinions. It does not make comments against controversial issues of taxes, healthcare, or even educational policy. It is an attempt to cut through politics to show support for what we as a school value, and work to instill in our students. When a student walks down the aisle with their cap and gown, everyone should understand that their education at Yorktown involved educating the whole child.

As we continue our mission of education and support, we welcome the school system’s help in revising the sign to remove or modify any phrase that is deemed inappropriate so the message may be reposted for the edification and education of all.

These signs are one of many essential steps needed to make YHS the strong, inclusive community it needs to be.  

- Deborah A Waldron

Letter from teacher #3:

Mr and Ms Adams,

Thanks for writing. I agree with you on the goal of political neutrality. I have asked that the Move On signs be removed, as I don’t think they met that standard.

Ms Waldron, one of our Science teachers, was involved in the design of the other sign you mention. They worked hard to keep it non-partisan and the School Board approved its posting. I am going to copy Ms Waldron here and ask her to send you some information on their thinking in design of the sign.

These are divisive times in our society, unfortunately. We do want to keep our school a safe, positive, and caring place for all.

- Ray Pasi

Meanwhile, the signs at Yorktown High School remain posted and the group of students plan to take their concerns to the next school board meeting.

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