A painting of a tiger, the school’s mascot, greets visitors in the lobby of Gardiner Area High School. Administrators are now requiring students to write proposals to hang items on the walls after a “heated exchange” broke out at the end of last school year when one student put a Trump flag over a Pride flag. Ashley Allen/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER – Gardiner Area High School students will now have to get approval to hang anything up on school walls, and justify the reason, after a “heated exchange” broke out at the end of last school year when one student put a Trump flag over a Pride flag.

Administrators are restructuring the high school’s policy for posting and distributing materials by requiring students to write proposals on what they want to be hung up, school officials said Thursday night at a Maine School Administrative District 11 board workshop.

The rule is part of the board-approved Gardiner Area High School student handbook, but is not a districtwide policy.

The board hosted the workshop Thursday to speak with the district’s attorney on how to move forward from the incident in June when a student placed a “Trump 2020” flag over an administration-approved Pride flag. The action resulted in an argument between students they say “seriously disrupted” school operations, prompting administrators to temporarily ban the display of any flag except the American flag on walls or clothing.

Melissa Hewey, the school district’s attorney, educated the board on how to provide a “discrimination-free” experience for all students at Gardiner Area High School. It starts with enacting the appropriate policies; administrators demonstrating examples of leadership; giving support to students who struggle and providing education at every step, she said.

The board reiterated that the issue with the flags was the escalation of behavior by students and the act of putting a nonapproved flag over an approved flag.


“The Pride flag that was hanging had the permission of administration to be hanging. Someone came to that spot and without permission, took the flag of a political figure and put it on the top. It does not matter what those two flags look like. Based on the policy, the person that put the flag over the top, is the one that violated the policy,” said Jack Pitteroff, a board member. 

Aura Henderson, the school board’s student representative, said that after both flags were removed, students called her friends “gay slurs” — which she said was hate speech — “way more than ever (before).”

“(The administration’s response) wasn’t separating two groups and saying calm down, everyone breathe, but we are going to shut everyone down,” Henderson said. 

The high school’s new principal, Lauren Arnold, spoke about the “many discussions” had over who gets to decide what is hung up. She came to the conclusion that administrators should decide and students should go through an approval process for their propositions. 

The current policy on “posting and distributing materials” states: “Prior to posting or distributing handouts, flyers or notices of any kind, students must receive approval from the building principal. This includes all students, all clubs, student organizations and athletic teams. Students, clubs, and/or organizations who do not follow this procedure will receive appropriate disciplinary consequences and the materials will be confiscated.”

Arnold explained how the new system will work.


“(We are) coming up with clear guidelines on keeping it educational and appropriate. We have a form they will fill out, like a proposal we will approve,” she said. “But keeping with the spirit of the policy, we want equitable access to all students, all clubs and to use the spaces around the school in a positive way but be more organized in what that looks like.” 

Hewey said that such policies are intended to protect students and ensure all students have a safe learning environment. 

Arnold said the administration will have “zero tolerance” for hate speech. While students have First Amendment rights, Hewey noted there are specific areas of speech a school can ban, such as language around drugs, pornography or hate speech. 

To Henderson’s point, Hewey emphasized the importance of all of those in the school community being educated about “complicated issues” and how studies show that flags are a way to be supportive to “students that feel marginalized.” 

“One of the most important parts of this work is the education so they can draw those lines so when they hear something (disagreeable), they will know (if) it is either hate speech or offensive. If you call someone a racist slur, that’s hate speech, but if you disagree with someone’s political views, that’s probably just offensive,” Hewey said.  

Angela Hardy, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, shared that the district is partnering with the Office of the Maine Attorney General to have a civil rights leader meet with administrators and students; Maine Youth Action Network to provide student leadership work; and Healthy Communities in the Capital Area and other local organizations to help facilitate discussions and educate the entire district starting in the fall. 

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