Jenks Public Schools teacher alleges he was fired for displaying rainbow pride flags in his classroom
A teacher at Jenks Middle School alleges he was fired by the school district after declining to remove rainbow pride flags from his classroom.
Tyler Rathe, a seventh-grade science teacher, claims he was asked to remove several versions of pride flags from the walls of his classroom, where he says he hung flags representing his students' communities, identities and countries of origin.
Rathe says he was first placed on administrative probation and then subsequently fired by administrators on Friday when he again refused to remove the flags.
"The administration’s termination of Mr. Rathe for failure to remove Pride flags from a 2SLGBTQ+ teacher’s classroom, unguided by any written policy, is an inherently arbitrary and prejudiced attack on free speech and free association," wrote Hanna Roberts, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, in a Monday letter to Jenks Public Schools.
"Public schools cannot wantonly decide, on the whim of certain administrators, which teachers may display certain decorations in their classroom and which teachers may not," Roberts said. "It cannot be the school’s policy that certain flags in certain classrooms are tolerable, while the same flags in another teacher’s classroom are inappropriate. The First Amendment protects teachers and students from such discriminatory censorship of certain viewpoints in the classroom."
Roberts said the ACLU has not been retained as Rathe's legal counsel but that Rathe had authorized them to speak on his behalf.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Roberts said the firing of Rathe, an open member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, is "on trend with what's happening in the Oklahoma legislature."
"They passed a bill last year that made it difficult for teachers to be able to discuss things like race and gender in the classroom, and I think that this is sort of taking it one step further, so that not only are we making sure that teachers can't discuss these issues, they can't even represent themselves or their own identities or their students' identities," Roberts said.
"It's a level of censorship that we haven't seen in this state in a long time," she said.
"Jenks Middle School administrators’ arbitrary policy to eliminate support for 2SLGBTQ+ students serves only to hurt an already vulnerable population of young people," Roberts wrote in her letter to the district.
"For those students struggling with their own sense of belonging, a Pride flag may serve as a signal of hope in an otherwise uncomfortable, anxiety inducing environment," Roberts said. "Erasing 2SLGBTQ+ imagery from the classroom will never erase 2SLGBTQ+ students or teachers, but it will certainly send a clear message to the Jenks Public Schools’ 2SLGBTQ+ community—you are not welcome; your identity is not valued here."
In a statement, Jenks Public Schools Communications Director Rob Loeber said, "The recent allegations and rumors circulating on social media are not factually accurate. Jenks Public Schools would be in violation of confidentiality laws if employment records are disclosed. All employees deserve dignity and respect. Details of employment records will not be discussed or shared by JPS in a public forum. Employment actions taken by Jenks Public Schools are never based on discriminatory reasons. JPS adheres to non-discrimination policies in all personnel matters."