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Paw Paw school officials say they'll reconsider two policy changes after an outcry Monday night

A member of the community addresses the Paw Paw School Board in support of rainbow flags and the TRAILS curriculum in schools.  She is wearing a plaid shirt with a rainbow face mask attached to her arm.
Leona Larson
A community member addresses the Paw Paw School Board on Oct . 10 in support of rainbow flags and the TRAILS curriculum for Social and Emotional Learning.

Scores of people turned out for a Paw Paw Public Schools Board of Education meeting. The majority were there to protest the removal of rainbow flags from classrooms, and the cutting of a mental health curriculum.

Earlier this month Paw Paw school teachers and administrators were told to take down rainbow flags, a symbol of LGBTQ pride and equality, from classrooms and other safe spaces after the school board received a complaint from a parent who suggested rainbow flags were inappropriate for elementary-aged children. About the same time, the district announced in an Oct. 5 letter to parents, that it would “discontinue using the TRAILS Curriculum” for social and emotional learning.

These two policy decisions prompted droves of parents, teachers, students, community members and LGBTQ activists from Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor to come to Monday night’s school board meeting and address the board.

Kris Perkins runs the school district’s Performing Arts Center. He opposed both decisions.

“Rainbows appear when it storms. A little reminder that it’s going to be okay in the end,” Perkins told the board. “We need to remind all our students we’re here for them no matter how bad the storms may be.”

Angela Schmidt said she wrote the letter to the board objecting to the rainbow flags based on her experiences as an early education teacher and as a Paw Paw parent. Schmidt said young children don’t see differences until others point them out.

“They really truly don't until we start bringing it to their attention and we start making an issue out of it,” Schmidt said. “Let them be as innocent and carefree as possible as long as possible - and parents get that choice.”

The mental-health curriculum known as TRAILS was developed at the University of Michigan in 2013. The K-12 program is used in about 700 school districts and emphasizes inclusion for historically marginalized students. The Paw Paw School District adopted the program last year for its Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum.

Rick Reo is the district’s superintendent of schools.

“The reason we shut down TRAILS, or at least put a pause on it was it was creating division,” said Reo. “SEL needs to be something that we can all rally around and be positive about and we didn’t have that.”

Reo called the outpouring of support for both the TRAILS program, and rainbow flags, “incredible.”

“We had a huge piece of our community show up. I found it very educational,” he said. “People spoke from the heart. They talked to us about wanting to work with us to do what's right for kids.”

“I think what was shared tonight is going to inform our discussions going forward in my work with the school board. And I think it's going to be a really positive thing in the long run. And one thing I'm committed to doing is making sure we involve students in these discussions.”

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.