HILLIARD, Ohio (WCMH) — Teachers in Hilliard City Schools will be allowed to continue wearing badges identifying them as supportive of LGBTQ+ students after some parents expressed concern over a code on the back that could lead to websites inappropriate for children.

The front of a ‘Safe Person, Safe Space’ badge, worn by some Hilliard City Schools teachers (National Education Association).

Some teachers recently began wearing LGBTQ-supportive badges that read “I’m Here” with a Pride flag design on the front. The teachers’ union received the badges and supplied them to any teacher who requested one. 

“I thought these badges would be a simple way to show support for our students and staff,” union president Linna Jordan said. “Similar to other safe space stickers or posters, this would identify adults you can speak to without judgment.”

The QR code leads to informational sites for adults wanting to learn more how to support LGBTQ+ students, but some parents said it also led to sites with inappropriate material. 

“Any teacher who chose to wear one of the badges clearly understood that the resources at the link were intended for adults, not students,” said David Stewart, superintendent of Hilliard City Schools, in a statement. “The resources are provided for teachers’ personal growth and professional development.” 

‘They clicked a million times’

LGBTQ+ young people statistically are known to have difficulty finding safe spaces. Research shows LGBTQ+ youth are five times more likely to die by suicide due to their inability to be out among family members and peers. In addition, 92% of transgender youth have attempted suicide before age 25. 

The QR code leads to nea-lgbtqc.org. The site lists a “Resource Toolkit,” with tabs on topics like bullying, coming out, gender identity, hate crimes, and sex education. After choosing a subject, a list of links pops up with articles covering that topic. 

Sarah Florimonte, who has two children in Hilliard schools, said continuous clicking through various links could potentially lead to age-inappropriate material.

“Some parents got a hold of the badges and they went to the website. They clicked a million times to get to some information,” Florimonte said. “Then, they tried to get the board to make all the teachers remove all of the badges and no longer wear anything indicating that they’re a safe person to talk to.” 

Amid the debate, the district released the following guidance to teachers: 

  • Teachers were reminded that the resources linked to the QR code were for adult learning only. Additionally, they were reminded that the resources should not be included or used in designing any lesson plan.
  • Teachers were reminded that if asked about the “I’m Here” message on the badge, their response should be age appropriate.
  • Teachers were advised that it may be in their best interest to cover the QR code on the back of the badge.

That last point was a concern to Hilliard parent Kathy Grenzalis, who spoke at a board meeting on Sept. 12.

“If a QR code is age-inappropriate and requires duct tape, why is it in our schools?” said Grenzalis, who also said the district is promoting the idea that “parents cannot be trusted and should be excluded from certain topics or conversations.”

The school district reiterated to NBC4 following the meeting that it embraces the inclusive nature of the badge’s message: “The Hilliard City School District remains committed to ensuring that all students feel safe, included and welcomed in their learning experience.” 

Combating misinformation 

Negative sentiments around LGBTQ+ inclusivity in schools is not unique to Hilliard, as districts across the nation are having the same debate. In April, Ohio House Bill 616 was introduced, similar to the Florida law opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Ohio’s bill would prohibit schools from teaching about “divisive or inherently racist concepts,” including sexual orientation and gender identity for students between kindergarten and third grade. In higher grades, the bill would require any instruction about LGBTQ-related topics to be taught in an age-appropriate way.

One of the parents who spoke at last week’s board meeting, Cynthia Sheets, said she became alarmed when books with transgender characters were out on display in the library.

“I think sexuality of any type should not be on display or otherwise in a public school building,” she said.

But Maria Bruno, public policy director for Equality Ohio, said supporters of House Bill 616 are likely misstating what conversations are happening. 

“Folks who are upset about inclusion are often people who have an issue with LGBTQ+ identities,” Bruno said. “For them, the idea that we would openly talk about LGBTQ+ identities without shame is inherently perverse.” 

Crystal Lett, an alum of Hilliard schools, said she thinks communities need to be committed to only sharing pertinent factual resources to combat misinformation. 

“LGBTQ+ students deserve to be an integral and cherished part of our community, and they deserve decency, respect, access to information, safe spaces — just like everybody else,” Lett said. “I long for the day where this doesn’t have to be a culture war issue, we can just let people love who they love.”