A California school district is investigating a teacher who posted a now-viral video in which she joked about telling a student that he could pledge allegiance to the Pride flag.
In the video, Kristin Pitzen, who teaches English as a second language for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, talks about how she allows students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in her classroom.
"OK, so during third period, we do announcements and they do the Pledge of Allegiance," Pitzen said in the video shared to her TikTok account, @mrsgillingsworth, which has been deleted. "I always tell my class, 'Stand if you feel like it, don't stand if you feel like it, say the words if you want. You don't have to say the words.' So my class decided to stand but not say the words. Totally fine. Except for the fact that my room does not have a flag."
Pitzen pointed to where the American flag used to be in her classroom, but said she took it down during the Covid-19 pandemic "because it made me uncomfortable," she whispered. She said she packed it away and hasn't found it yet.
"But, my kid today goes, 'Hey, it's kind of weird that we just stand and we say it to nothing,'" Pitzen said, adding that she told the student she is working on finding it.
"In the meantime, I tell this kid, 'We do have a flag in the class that you can pledge your allegiance to.' And he like looks around and goes, 'Oh, that one?'" she said, pointing to the rainbow Pride flag and laughing.
The video has ignited backlash from some parents and conservative figures, with some calling for Pitzen to be fired. Others criticized Pitzen for what they described as mocking the American flag or trying to indoctrinate students.
Some people said that their issue was less with the presence of a Pride flag in the classroom, and more with Pitzen's remarks about the American flag, which they found disrespectful given news last week that 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.
Richard Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence, also criticized Pitzen, writing on Twitter, "What kind of parent would allow their child to be taught by this wacko?"
Pitzen did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Newport-Mesa Unified School District wrote in a statement on Twitter that it is investigating the video.
A spokesperson for the district declined to answer additional questions about what exactly the district was investigating.
"While we do not discuss employee related matters, we can tell you that showing respect and honor for our nation’s flag is a value that we instill in our students and an expectation of our employees," the spokesperson said. "We take matters like this seriously and are taking action to address it."
The district does have a policy regarding flags, the spokesperson said. It requires each school to conduct daily "patriotic exercises," which include reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and "may also include instruction that promotes understanding of the concepts of 'pledge,' 'allegiance,' 'republic,' and 'indivisible' and understanding of the importance of the pledge as an expression of patriotism, love of country, and pride in the United States," the policy states.
It adds that individuals may choose not to participate in the flag salute for personal reasons.
The policy regarding display of the American flag requires that it be displayed during school days "at the entrance or on the grounds of the school." It does not mention the flag's display in individual classrooms.
Pitzen had previously posted about Pride and the LGBTQ community on TikTok. In one video shared in June, she showed new Pride flags she bought for Pride month and said, "I pledge allegiance to the queers."
Many of Pitzen's critics took issue with her removing the American flag from her classroom, but others also argued that she shouldn't be forcing her personal beliefs about LGBTQ people on students.
However, in recent years, advocates have called on educators to make an effort to be more openly supportive of LGBTQ people — whether that's by including prominent LGBTQ figures in lessons or by displaying a Pride flag in the classroom.
More than two-thirds, or 68.7 percent, of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment, including being called names or threatened, at school based on their sexual orientation, and more than half based on their gender identity, according to a 2019 report from GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students. One-quarter of LGBTQ students were physically harassed, including being pushed or shoved, based on their sexual orientation, and about one-fifth based on their gender identity, the report found.
Advocates have also found that supportive environments, including at school, can make a difference in the mental health of LGBTQ youth. One 2019 survey from The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, found that queer youth with at least one accepting adult in their life have a 40 percent lower risk of attempting suicide.
The Trevor Project also found that LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide, according to a 2020 survey.