On Tuesday, Sept. 5, Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland issued a statement via email to RRPS staff members regarding policies on email signatures and classroom signage and displays.

“We have received some questions in regard to classroom displays or signage and what is allowed in staff email signature blocks. Our policy, and practice, in both cases has not changed,” Cleveland wrote. “Email signatures should be school or district specific only.”

Board policy, cited in the email, says that inappropriate use of email includes messages, “including but not limited to, quotes, personal or political messages or opinions, references to non-district approved team or other ‘spirit’ slogans, or other non-district approved messages in the signature block of the sender’s email message.”

However, Cleveland wrote, “The use of pronouns is a personal decision and not addressed in the policy.”

The email goes on to elaborate on policy regarding classroom displays.

“It has never been in the practice of RRPS to allow personal displays in the classroom that may be perceived to be of a religious or political nature or ideology, or a social issue,” Cleveland wrote, again citing board policy.

““Teachers shall not use the classroom to advocate personal beliefs regarding political or sectarian issues. No materials shall be introduced into the classroom by an individual or organized group to promote a biased viewpoint on religious, racial, sexual, or political issue,” section 404 of the policy states.

“This policy, and practice, has been viewpoint-neutral and applied in a viewpoint-neutral manner. We would either have to allow all signs in support of all viewpoints or none at all, which has been our practice,” Cleveland said. “The news story that broke this weekend in relation to our policy is a great example of how divisive one well-intended display can become and why we believe the classroom should remain free of the materials mentioned above.

“That said, as a school district, we are committed to supporting all students. We pride ourselves in being diverse, inclusive, accepting, and a welcoming and safe place for all students. Together, we represent this and together we will show our commitment to ensuring ALL students feel a part of the school community in which they attend,” she wrote.

This includes the safe place areas and staff members used for students to report bullying, harassment or to go to for help. Those are still available for students with signage allowed by the police.

“We have chosen to show our support for all students collectively and not separate from one another using individual school branded Safe Place signs which were introduced last school year. We will create posters that can be hung in the schools to identify the purpose behind SAFE PLACES. … Safe Place staff identify their office or classroom by hanging a school branded SAFE PLACE sign,” the email states.

“We believe that all buildings, classrooms, and playgrounds should be safe places. We are all unified in this effort and chose not to represent one group of students individually from another but rather each school is unified in their support of ALL students regardless of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation, physical or cognitive disability or any other distinguishing characteristic; or on an association with a person, or group with any person, with one or more of the actual or perceived distinguishing characteristics.”

Cleveland’s missive was apparently in response to a story that aired on KOB-TV on Sept. 3.

Spencer Schacht reported, using audio from an anonymous CHS teacher, that the teacher was concerned about changes to what signs can go up outside of classrooms and that the school is setting new rules about how teachers are designating what they call “safe spaces.”

“Many teachers here at Cleveland High School have signs outside their classroom indicating it’s a safe space for students of color, or those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. But a new school policy says teachers can’t have these signs anymore that depict ‘political messages,’” Schacht reported. “Instead, they can only show safe space signs that only depict the school logo.”

Last week, the story noted, CHS principal Scott Affentranger sent his staffers an email, saying all safe zone signs in the school have to change and no longer show the pride flag.

“I’m not sure where this is coming from. Why did signs have to change or what, like, why they have to be these new signs which completely are inadequate in signaling anything that’s meaningful for students,” said the anonymous teacher, who explained that anyone who has a safe space signs went through specific training put on by the American Psychological Association — many teachers have had these exact signs, clear messages to queer students, for years.

“LGBTQ students, the statistics are really clear, they experienced more bullying, and as a result are more likely to experience mental health issues, or suicidal ideation. And so safe spaces are places where students feel they can just be themselves,” said the teacher. “If you have a gay flag or pride flag or Black Lives Matter messaging … all that has to go.”

Rio Rancho Schools Employee Union President Billie Helean wrote the following:

“(RRSEU) exists for the purpose of supporting staff working conditions by advocating for fair wages, reasonable working hours, workplace safety measures, and equitable treatment. We negotiate with the district to secure better benefits and protections, ensuring that employees can enjoy a safer and more comfortable work environment while also promoting their overall well-being. As such, we will always advocate for our staff. By doing so, we also ensure the best possible learning environment for students. Our hope is that every staff member feels safe to be an advocate for their students, and to be a safe zone for every student in our district, especially our most vulnerable populations.”

Keith Abrahamson, a CHS teacher who didn’t need anonymity, said, “I’m not at all concerned about it — and I’m one of the first to jump on board with sensitivity training and a small classroom sign which has been in the control room in plain view for about eight years. Recently the concept has become politicized, which means it’s polarizing (and) also means it’s inappropriate to include on a public signature ultimately paid for by tax dollars, which makes perfect sense to me.

Added Abrahamson, technical director for CTE and fine arts, “In my opinion, the whole school needs to be a ‘safe zone’ for everyone — including staff. If we place our energies to work in that direction — curbing bullying and acting in an inclusive manner, in other words actually doing what we say we’re doing — it’ll go a lot further than a sign or a tag on an email.

“By claiming a space or room or a teacher as ‘safe zone,’ are we actually implying that the rest of the teachers, classrooms and spaces are ‘not safe?’ That’s absurd. I’m with the district — a signature should simply be a signature — (and) I choose to add my academic notes; I’m a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and proud of it — it’s not political.”

Abrahamson, in his ninth year on the CHS staff, said, “My classroom is safe for every student in it because I make sure it is, and I’ll always make sure it is — regardless of any outside issues, political views, bullies within that class or otherwise. We do shooter drills, and I’m prepared as I should be to stand between evil and my students. I wear my compassion for all of my students on my sleeve, and in doing so I believe that each student feels ‘safe’ in my classroom as all are treated equally, are taught to be respectful of each other, and all have an equal voice, no matter what.”

Story continues to develop

On Wednesday morning, CHS science teacher John Dao informed staffers via the school’s Google Classroom for Safezones Staff, “Hey all, quick update. I’m going to be reaching out to the Union about what rights I have to keep up my sign because by asking me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself to remove these symbols is both insensitive and oppressive when I know it does harm to the mental health of my own students.”

He was advised to attend a school board meeting.