The painting of a pride flag on a Culbreth Middle School classroom wall has recently been removed — upsetting and confusing many parents.
“From my interactions, (Culbreth) seemed like it was a very supportive environment for all students," said former Culbreth parent Melissa Brumback. "I was very surprised."
The flag was painted by a teacher at the school, where former student Lily Brumback, now a 9th grader at Carrboro High School, said it is common for teachers to decorate their own classrooms.
“Almost all classrooms have some kind of painting,” Lily Brumback said.
Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said in an email that the flag was painted over due to an adjustment in teaching assignments — which included new room allocations — following a different teacher’s resignation.
Nash said Culbreth principal April Burko called the remaining teachers to a meeting to discuss these changes. The teacher who had painted the flag did not attend the meeting, he said, but did meet with Burko later that day.
“Principal Burko had the room painted in preparation for the next teacher,” Nash said. “She also suggested to the teacher who painted the flag it would be okay to display a more portable flag in her new classroom, in the event another adjustment would be needed to accommodate class schedules.”
CHCCS did not allow The Daily Tar Heel to speak to the teacher or principal for comment on the pride flag.
Reactions from the community
However, Lily Brumback said though she doesn’t believe Burko had negative intent, she does think the message sent by the principal’s actions was not one of inclusion.
“I think (the removal of the painting) came across as erasure and wanting to hide the gay community as a hush-hush topic,” she added.
Michelle Haskin, Smith Middle School parent and assistant teaching professor at UNC, said she believes removing the flag was not the best way for the school to handle the situation.
“There was the inadvertent message of the painting over of that symbol that I think I was disturbed by, and I think a number of people in the community also found concerning,” Haskin said.
Regardless of the administration's original intent, Haskin said she thinks it is important to acknowledge the way actions are perceived by the community. She added that greater transparency is needed to better understand why this occurred and how the situation can be remedied.
Supporting LGBTQ+ students
Lily Brumback said she does believe Culbreth has taken measures toward making its campus inclusive. She said some teachers have been openly supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, and students are educated through brief daily instruction on ways to be more equitable.
Stefanie Mazva-Cohen, Culbreth’s school social worker, said in an email that the school has had an active student-led GSA since 2015.
“We have GSA buttons that we distribute throughout the year and make posters for the hallways at our club,” Mazva-Cohen said. “We offer our club at lunch to make sure every student has equal access.”
The GSA also hosts an annual movie night, she said, showing an acceptance-themed film. Movie night refreshment proceeds are donated to The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth.
Many Culbreth faculty members also receive Safe Zone training through UNC’s LGBTQ Center, Mazva-Cohen added.
But Lily Brumback said she does feel the school could still improve. She said the encouragement of students to clearly state their pronouns would help to ensure students are not misgendered.
“I want to make sure I identify them in a way they would like,” she said. “I think providing an example for students, whether students take that example with them when they leave Culbreth or if they don’t, providing that to begin with is a very important thing — especially at such a crucial time in development.”
As for the flag, Melissa Brumback said she would like to see the school directly address the circumstance.
“I think it made a lot of parents aware that there might be ongoing issues,” she said. “So I think parents are looking for the school to tell them what’s going on, and, yes, we do support your kids no matter their gender identity.”
Haskin said she is hopeful the school will grow from this experience and would like to see them use it as an opportunity to better educate students on the cultural significance of the symbol.
"I think there can be remediation done, and this could be turned into an opportunity for discussion for the community and the school," Haskin said. "And you can learn from that.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article misstated the individuals that CHCCS did not grant permission to speak on the pride flag's removal from Culbreth Middle School. The school district didn't allow the teacher or school principal to speak of the flag's removal. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.