Posted on December 1, 2020

School District Faces Ongoing Criticism over Ban on Black Lives Matter in Classrooms

Sudhiti Naskar, This Is Reno, November 29, 2020

Amidst schools around America embracing support for Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ communities, the Washoe County School District (WCSD) insists BLM in schools constitutes political activity and should not be allowed.

WCSD finds itself at a crossroads with a 1997 directive–called board policy 1310 “Political Activity in Schools”–as students, parents, teachers and even some trustees continue to question the interpretation of the policy.

WCSD is interpreting 1310 as preventing teachers from supporting, showing solidarity or even talking about current social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), LGBTQ+ issues and rainbow flags in their professional capacity, unless otherwise specified by the school district.

For months, students and teachers have been appealing and urging the board to revise the policy. They say informing students about current affairs, including race, gender and discrimination, is what they expect from schools.

Schools nationally allow Black Lives Matter in classrooms; here in Washoe County, the district’s legal interpretation of its policy is that overt support for Black Lives Matter, particularly by teachers, constitutes political activity and therefore should be barred from campuses.

Many say that interpretation is flawed, outdated and inconsistent with what is happening in the rest of the country.


Early this month, WCSD passed an anti-racism motion unanimously. Still, it continues to define the BLM movement and LGBTQ+ issues as “political,” and thus, improper topics for classroom and student-teacher discussion. It was not clear during several board meetings where trustees have discussed the policy why the district has defined these issues as “political.”

A reading of the board policy does not unearth that the policy prohibits discussion of these issues. In fact, under the Permissible Activities within the policy, “instructional discussion of current events, which includes historical and current political races, elections,” and more, when “delivered in a fair, unbiased fashion and in alignment with the Nevada Academic Content Standards and other District policies” is allowed.

What 1310 does, however, is restrict or prohibit teachers from discussing or supporting partisan politics. The board seems to have taken that leaf out of the document and defined BLM and LGBTQ+ issues as partisan politics.


Emails between trustees Katy Simon Holland and Andrew Caudill and Jay Kolbet-Clausell, a Reno social worker and a former school district student, sheds light on the school district’s definition of BLM as a political issue.

In a Nov. 8 email to Kolbet-Clausell, Caudill pointed out that because BLM is a political action committee, the issue cannot be discussed at schools.


In response, Kolbet-Clausell wrote, “There are Political Action Committees for everything: homeownership, banking, transportation, justice in general, or even teachers! Teachers aren’t allowed to say much if they are not allowed to cover anything with a PAC.”

The Empower Nevada Teachers group, which engages in political advocacy, such as at the Nevada Legislature and a protest attended by hundreds last summer, has teachers wearing red T-shirts in schools on Wednesdays.

The district’s legal counsel Neil Rombardo, however, echoed the trustees’ words during the Nov. 10 board meeting. {snip}


Rombardo said demands for the review of this policy have been made before, but “we have never changed anything.” He maintained that even though the school district is sympathetic to the calls for equity, there could be legal challenges in allowing teachers to support the issues.

The trustees, though, passed an unanimous motion by Taylor to review board policy 1310 “specifically looking at purpose, definition… with an examination of how other districts are showing support for marginalized students as relates to political activity in school.”


Hours long in-person discussions at several board meetings and email communications between the district and people from the community show that the district is anticipating three main challenges: the slippery slope, freedom of speech and the potential for lawsuits.

“If we pick one we will have to allow it all.” These are the words of legal counsel Rombardo, who is of the opinion that if the teachers are allowed to discuss and support the BLM movement, rainbow flags and LGBTQ+ issues, the school district will be required to also allow Confederate flags, pro-choice or pro-life ideas, by default.

However, students and teachers believe differently.

“This is a ‘false double-standard’,” said Hanna Branch, a senior in Wooster High School’s International Baccalaureate program. Branch is also a founding member of Washoe County School District Students for Change.

“While we can’t and shouldn’t fly the Confederate flag, we can fly the American flag. One is hateful and the other is not. That is a precedent,” she added.

Rombardo accepted after more discussions that it might be possible to carve out an exception if the school district is able to make a case of why the BLM movement and LGBTQ+ issues should be supported.

“Allowing teachers to show support of these issues can be justified by intent,” said Phil Kaiser during the meeting. Kaiser is a teacher at McQueen High School. “[It’s] intent to support marginalized groups that have faced discriminations, bullying, assault and death. 400 years ago the first slaves were sold in Jamestown. So, we need to show support to these students.”


On Nov. 12, during a virtual Black Caucus by Washoe Dems, Lily Baran, a former music teacher, community organizer and former WCSD student, was scathing in her remarks about the board meeting, which she attended.


Baran mentioned the Berkeley, California school district and the Buffalo, New York school district, both of which did a BLM week at an elementary level. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin public school district did a National Black Lives Matter Week of Action, Feb. 4–8. Indiana had something similar.

Georgia’s Dekalb County school district plans to hold a Black Lives Matter week. Scarborough public school in Maine, and many other schools, are allowing BLM movement related programs.


In 2017, the Rochester Teachers Association and School District passed a resolution for Black Lives Matter in schools.


The Prince George County Board of Education, in Maryland, passed a similar resolution in 2018 that specifically endorsed and encouraged “teachers and students to participate in the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools…”

Several national organizations have already developed Black Lives Matter Week of Action kits for schools and educators. The kits include proposed curriculum, lessons and lesson plans, teaching strategies and printable resources. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers workshops as well, providing virtual anti-bias and social justice training for educators and district administrators.