Marshall's LGBTQ community angered by flag settlement

A car drives down a street
In southwestern Marshall, families and students in the LGBTQ community say trust is broken with the local school district after it removed a Pride flag.
Paul Middlestaedt | MPR News 2020

Members of the LGBTQ community in Marshall say they are disheartened, angry and hurt by a decision to take down a flag display representing students’ diverse backgrounds. The Pride flag was added to a middle school display in 2020 as part of an inclusivity project. 

This week, Marshall Public Schools agreed to remove the display as part of a settlement over the discipline of a student who petitioned to have the rainbow flag taken down. The plaintiffs in the case had argued that the district had violated the student’s free speech rights and the lawsuit alleged that the flag displays weren’t “viewpoint neutral.”

Jesmine Rattler, parent of a student who identifies as LGBTQ, says the Pride flag represents love, equality and unity.

“Our school didn't stand beside that, even though they stated numerous times that they did and they will,” she said.

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Rattler thinks the district caved in to its critics, and she says the decision to take down the display sends a mixed message for families like hers.

Two people pose for a photograph.
Janiah Andrews (left) and her mom Jesmine Rattler at their home in Marshall, Minn. Janiah is going into the eighth grade at Marshall Middle School and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. After the lawsuit settlement where the district agreed to take down the Pride flag, Janiah felt angry and unsupported by the administration.
Courtesy of Jesmine Rattler

Her daughter, Janiah Andrews, is an eighthgrader at Marshall Middle School and a person of color. 

Janiah says she now feels uneasy about who she can trust when she returns to school, where she finds community in the Gay Straight Alliance student organization.

Superintendent Jeremy Williams confirmed Thursday that the two teachers who led the Gay Straight Alliance student organizations at the middle school and high school both resigned.

Janiah worries whether she’ll continue to have support and feel safe in the classroom and whether her student club will still be around.

“I really hope that when school starts that the flags being down… doesn't make the students feel like that's another reason for… A lot of disgusting comments were said to me, because of who I am,” says Janiah. “I have friends who will no longer talk to me because other people told them not to speak to me because I was part of the LGBTQI-plus community.”

In a statement released earlier this week, Marshall Public Schools said it agreed to the settlement because it was planning to take down the flag display anyway. The district did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the agreement, and no money was awarded to the plaintiffs. However, school policies were changed to allow students to circulate petitions on school property, as long as it doesn’t disrupt class.

MPR News reached out to the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit — a group of parents and religious leaders called Marshall Concerned Citizens — but did not hear back. 

Attorney Erick Kaardal represents the plaintiffs. He says the settlement is an appropriate resolution to the dispute. 

“There was a really a clash of values in this case … someone felt excluded. They wrote a petition. The petition was confiscated [by the school]. There was some sort of misunderstanding of how the program was supposed to work because it was an inclusivity program, but someone felt excluded,” said Kaardal. “And so maybe we get better at it, right? And the next time, no one feels excluded, because we do it in a better way.”

The district expressed optimism in its statement saying, “If there is any good that has come out of this controversy, it is that our LGBTQ students know that they are welcome, safe and supported in our schools, and this will not change.”

However, families and students who identify as LGBTQ say they feel trust with the district is broken. 

Victoria Cieslewski says her son, a Marshall Middle School student, has been bullied and harassed in school because of his identity. She says the district’s settlement has caused turmoil for her son who is possibly looking into options for homeschooling. 

“He's still digesting it because he thought that this was over,” she says, noting that her son assumed the Pride flag would remain on display because he thought the plaintiffs had a weak case. 

“He didn't think there was any way that they would win this lawsuit. And I don't think they would have if it went to court. But it didn't,” she said. 

Now Cieslewski and others in the LGBTQ community are wondering if the settlement in Marshall will embolden critics in other school districts to challenge the Pride flag. Community members are rallying Thursday afternoon to oppose the district’s decision to take down the flag. 

Braeden Berreth, a student at Marshall Middle School, says he will be there to support his LGBTQ friends and his dad, who identifies as nonbinary.

“I'm planning on helping every way, shape and form that I can to get the flags back up. Even if it means, you know, losing so many friends that don't support it — I'm willing to do that,” he said.