A Missouri teacher resigned last week after administrators in his school district told him he had to take down his Pride flag and that he couldn’t discuss human sexuality or “sexual preference” at school.
John M. Wallis, 22, who taught speech, theater and world mythology, said he hung a rainbow Pride flag in his classroom at Neosho Junior High School on the first day of school to create a welcoming environment for all students — and he said students noticed.
“I had, on the first day, about five students that came up to me and thanked me,” he said. “They said: ‘Thank you for having the flag up. I wouldn’t know where else to go.’”
But just two days later, on Aug. 26, Wallis said, he was called into a meeting with administrators, who told him that a parent had called and expressed concern that Wallis “would potentially teach their child to be gay.”
Before the first day of school, he said, he asked for permission from administrators to hang the flag, “and they advised against it but didn’t instruct me not to.” So he displayed the flag and two signs above his whiteboards that both read “In this classroom everyone is welcome.”
During the meeting Aug. 26, the administrators told him to remove the signs and the flag, which Wallis said one of the administrators compared to the Confederate flag.
“I was told that in the classroom I have to be middle-of-the-road on political issues, and I said: ‘That’s OK. This is not a political issue,’” Wallis said. “I said, ‘This is a human rights issue.’ And then I was told I have to be middle-of-the-road on human rights. There’s no middle road on human rights.”
Wallis said he had students come in “every hour” Aug. 30 to ask where the flag and the signs were. He told them that he had a meeting and was told to take it down.
“And then I went a step further and said, ‘If you have a problem with that flag representing me or my students, there are other classes that you can find,’” he said he told students.
The following day, he said, he was called into a meeting with Jim Cummins, the Neosho School District superintendent, who said multiple parents had called and said Wallis was “pushing an agenda in the classroom.”
Cummins asked Wallis to sign a letter that prohibited him from discussing topics related to LGBTQ people in the classroom.
The letter, shared with NBC News, said that if Wallis was “unable to present the curriculum in a manner that keeps your personal agenda on sexuality out of your narrative and the classroom discussions, we will ultimately terminate your employment.”
It added, “To clarify this further, there will be no references to sexuality or gender displayed in your classroom, your instruction and classroom conversations will stay clear of discussions regarding human sexuality and/or sexual preference, and any research or assignments given should not require a topic related to the above.”
Wallis said he ultimately signed the letter, but he resigned the next day. He had planned to stay until Sept. 30, but on Sept. 2, administrators told him that they had found a replacement and that he had until the end of the day to pack up his classroom. He tweeted about the experience a few days later.
Cummins said in a statement, “As per all personnel matters, there is a limited amount of information that is allowed to be shared by the school district.”
Wallis, who said he grew up as a closeted teen in Neosho, said the letter broke his heart, adding that “the term ‘sexual preference’ was used, which showed me that the district and people in the Neosho clearly believe that it’s still a choice to be who I am.”
He has since filed a complaint with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that he faced employment discrimination due to his sexual orientation. Cummins declined comment further about the complaint.
During his first meeting with school administrators, Wallis said, one told him that the school’s LGBTQ students know they’re supported, but he added: “If that was the case, I wouldn’t have had students thank me, because they didn’t know where else to go. So it was very clear to me that this district, this school, was not a place where they felt safe, but for them to see that flag in the classroom, they instantly knew that my classroom was an environment where they could learn and where they could feel safe.”
Now, Wallis said, he plans to move to St. Louis, where he hopes to be a speech and debate coach, but he doesn’t plan to teach K-12 school anymore.
“I don’t want people thinking I hate my district. I grew up there. I love it so much, but there are very clear issues, and public education is meant to serve all of the public,” he said. “And if we aren’t doing that by protecting LGBTQ+ educators and students, then we aren’t doing what public education should be doing.”