When Ash Tough adopted a new name and began using the pronouns “them” and “they” earlier this school year, the Carroll County teen faced bullying from classmates at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown.
As a way to stand up for others, the 13-year-old from Westminster and the middle schooler’s mom, Stephanie Brown, attempted to distribute mini LGBTQ pride flags — about 8 by 5 inches — to teachers throughout the school system.
Brown and Tough believe their actions led to a 4-1 vote by the Carroll County School Board this month to prohibit the display of the rainbow pride flag. The decision comes during Pride Month, a nationally recognized celebration of the LGBTQ community.
“It kind of felt like a stab in the back by the people who are supposed to support the students,” Tough told The Baltimore Banner. “I want to get flags back into the schools, but I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do that.”
The debate comes amid a push by conservatives nationwide to get school districts to remove books about sexual orientation and gender from school curriculums, to limit discussion of such topics in the classroom, and to bar trans kids from playing on sports teams that align with their gender. Texas’ Republican governor has ordered state officials to open child abuse investigations into reports of transgender kids receiving gender-affirming medical care.
Carroll County now appears to have one of the most restrictive pride flag policies in the region. The school systems for Baltimore City, Howard County and Baltimore County do not have pride flag restrictions.
Brown said Tough was prepared for the decision but is a fighter and will look for other ways to promote tolerance. “The whole purpose of the flag was not to be ‘Hey, pride over here.’ It was to show the staff and students that they had an ally.”
When Tough had walked through school hallways carrying a small pride flag, the teen was mocked and told by at least 10 students to commit suicide, Stephanie Brown said.
“They were called the ‘f’ word and other gender slurs,” Brown recalled, referring to a vulgar term for homosexuals.
After being told that the flag could not be carried by Tough nor displayed at school, the two linked up with PFLAG and came up with the idea of donating flags for teachers to display in their classrooms.
“I feel it’s really important to protect the students. If there is not an inclusive environment, it’s going to kill our kids and make them feel all alone,” Tough said, adding that their LGBTQ friends do not feel comfortable or accepted in school. The suburban system northwest of Baltimore has some 25,000 students.
A lengthy back-and-forth with the school board ensued, apparently leading to the board vote on June 8 in favor of banning the flag’s display, according to Brown. (Board member Patricia S. Dorsey was the lone dissenter among voting members.)
“I am angry for our students and teachers, staff and community who have been harmed by this entire discussion,” Brown said. “This is a direct result of my child and I working with PFLAG to provide flags for schools.”
The policy states that “the only other flags or banners that may be flown, posted, or affixed to the grounds, stadiums, fencing, walls, doors, ceilings, or any other appurtenances of any public school system building or facility owned or operated by the Board of Education of Carroll County” are those of the United States, the state of Maryland, Carroll County and those related to student achievement. Sports banners are also permitted, as are flags of other nations as part of a multinational display.
The policy does not prohibit students or faculty from wearing pride flags on clothing, according to Carey Gaddis, communications officer for Carroll County Public Schools.
School officials have pushed back against claims that the board’s policy constitutes a ban.
“Although the policy restricts what may be displayed on areas that the school system owns or operates, it does not restrict individual students or staff from displaying other flags or symbols on their personal attire or on items that they may own (e.g., book bags, etc.). The only flags or banners that are banned from display in the Carroll County Public Schools (including on clothing and on vehicles in parking lots) are the confederate battle flag and the swastika per Board action taken in February of 2018,” board general counsel Edmund J. O’Meally wrote in an email to The Baltimore Banner.
The school board’s president, Kenneth A Kiler, also thinks it is unfair to say that the policy is an attack on the pride flag.
“The only flags banned under the policy are the Confederate and Nazi flags. If a student came into school with a Confederate flag on a shirt they would be told to remove it. If they came in with a pride flag on their shirt that’s fine. That is not banned,” he said.
Kiler said the uproar is a result of PFLAG, which he called a “political group” that “forced” flags on teachers and “stirred things up on both sides of the fence,” he added.
“The executive director is a Democratic operative. They tried to defund the police. If you look on their website, you won’t find a single conservative bill they approve. … Distractions like that need to be minimized,” Kiler said.
Kiler, who has been on the board for four years and will end his term in December, said the majority of students in Carroll County support the policy.
“I think there is a percentage of students that are against it. Not the majority. I think the majority of students support this,” he said, adding that if the policy didn’t exist there would be students who wore “Don’t Tread on Me,” pro-Trump, or Christian flags.
Joy Fisher, president of PFLAG Westminster-Carroll County, said she was not surprised by the board’s decision.
“In fact, as soon as it was put out as an option, I knew it was going to pass. It was just a matter of time,” Fisher said.
Fisher said she has assisted efforts to collect 700 signatures in opposition to the flag policy.
“Carroll County is a religious, conservative place. We gave it our best shot,” she said. “There were a lot of people on board with this, it was clear to me. The kids had two awesome rallies outside of the school board. They really poured out their hearts as to why it was important to them. Despite that, you have parents who think [the flag] is offensive.”
The pride flag has been around for decades and appears to be widely accepted, though it can still be the subject of controversy. While baseball’s San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers this month wore caps that incorporated the pride flag’s colors into their respective logos, several players from the Tampa Bay Rays declined to wear such caps or rainbow-accented patches on their uniforms as part of the team’s planned Pride Night, citing religious reasons, according to news reports.
The Carroll County school board’s decision this month also came as no surprise to Kate Fisher, a Westminster resident who has two children, ages 8 and 11, in the county schools.
“Was I surprised? No. Was I devastated? Yes,” said Fisher, a lifelong Carroll County resident. “It seems like the same students who bullied LGBTQ kids when I was a student are now the parents who are now trying to erase LGBTQ students.”
Fisher said she teaches her children acceptance and equality.
“At home, from a very young age, we have never assumed that anyone is straight or cisgender. We have talked about different relationships. Anything is possible. I tell them ‘One day, you may find a partner’ and haven’t said what that couple might be like,” she said.
Representatives of Concerned Parents of Carroll County, a grassroots organization that has been vocal in its support of the pride flag ban, could not be reached for comment.
However, the group’s Bryan Thompson told FOX 45: “There are other ways to make children safe, and we also have to be mindful of kids that may not share those values as well. I think a lot of people want to confuse tolerance with acceptance.”
He called the pride flag a “distraction” and said that classrooms need to stay a “neutral environment” for children.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he added. “I think if you have to let the LGBTQ+ flag in the classroom then you have to let other flags in as well. And those other flags, be it a pro-choice flag or Christian flag or Muslim flag, may not be inclusive of other kids and may offend other children or parents of those children.”
The flag policy debate rehashed bad memories of Carroll County Public Schools for Angela Donovan, who lived in the county with her wife and three children for three years before leaving in 2019.
“We didn’t know anything about it. It looked charming,” Donovan recalled. “Now I would give it zero out of 10. I don’t recommend.”
Donovan said that shortly after her son began to transition, he faced opposition from the school system.
He was forced to use a private bathroom that was so far away from his classes that it resulted in several accidents, Donovan said. One staff member refused to call him by his new name. And substitute teachers often called him by the wrong name.
The experience resulted in Donovan and her family moving to Baltimore County, where they now reside and have had no issues with his new school.
“We have never had a slip-up with the name. We have never had an issue with people using his pronouns,” Donovan said. “He uses the boys’ bathroom. It has been a total normal experience, which it should have been the entire time.”
Joy Fisher thinks the new flag policy in Carroll County is an opportunity to bring change to the school board.
“I personally think we should just leave [the flag policy] alone. We should fight to make sure that we turn the board. There are some really fantastic people who are running. We should get out and behind them and make sure people vote,” she said.
In the meantime, she wants to distribute other rainbow symbols that show support to the LGBTQ community.
“The rainbow comes in all mediums and media,” she said. “We will work with teachers and students so that we can provide them with buttons so that they can let others know that they are in a safe space.”