Correction: A previous version of this story stated that a student left the district due to bullying for their orientation and turned to staff for help. The student actually left for being falsely identified as gay by other students and did not feel safe asking the staff for help.

LEAD, S.D. (KELO) — An 8×11 piece of paper containing nine words and six colors has sparked controversy in the Lead-Deadwood School District with parents and teachers clashing over what should be done going forward.

During a school board meeting on Tuesday, board members heard nearly two hours of testimony from the public on the sign that reads “THIS IS A SAFE SPACE ALL ARE WELCOME HERE” over a rainbow background. The board is looking to adopt a policy regarding the sign and ‘controversial subject matter.’

The policy states that aside from the United States flag, no materials or decorations endorsing controversial, political or religious message are allowed in the school. Controversial subjects are defined as materials, concepts, images, or phrases that:

  • Endorse a political candidate, party, or slogan.
  • Have appeared in the media and have been associated with controversy or a movement or cause.
  • A reasonable person would deem offensive, obscene, or inflammatory
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While Tuesday’s meeting was the first official mention of the “Safe Space” signs, they have been in place in some classrooms since the start of the school year. Fourth-grade teacher, Gwen Hess first noticed the sign at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Hess told the board that her elementary-aged child had felt pressured by classmates in the school to ‘be gay’ and did not feel safe approaching teachers due to some staff having the “Safe Space” sign on their door.

“Students shouldn’t receive special treatment because a school employee decides that certain student’s rights are more important than other student’s rights,” Hess said.

In her testimony, Hess said that teachers in the district should not be telling students to be accepting or tolerant of ‘this lifestyle’ and that public schools should be free of political propaganda.

“Their education should not be sidetracked by social drama,” Hess said. 

But the majority of testimony provided at the meeting pushed against Hess’ claims that the signs are political indoctrination and should be removed.

Katrina Hutchison is a business owner, dance teacher and resident of Lead and spoke against the proposed policy at Tuesday’s meeting. Hutchison described Hess’ comments as ‘divisive’ and disagreed with her comments calling the signs controversial.

“The people that were in support of [the signs] had no religious agenda, no political agenda. It was all about the safety and health of our kids,” Hutchison said.

In her speech, Hutchison detailed statistics from the Center for Disease Control that show LGBTQ youth suffer higher risk of suicide and report higher rates of bullying for their sexuality

“Several research studies, including GLSEN’s biennial National School Climate Survey, have demonstrated that the “Safe Space” campaign, like anti-bullying policies, makes a tremendous difference in LGBTQI+ students’ perceptions that their schools are safe and that their teachers are adults they can trust,” Hutchison told the board on Tuesday.

South Dakota is ranked the worst state in the country for rates of depression and anxiety among LGBTQ residents according to a 2022 HelpAdvisor survey. Of the 43,234 LGBTQ residents surveyed, 87% reported experiencing depression.

Hutchison told KELOLAND News she sees a connection between the sign issue in Lead and the recent executive order from Governor Krisit Noem banning ‘divisive concepts’ in K-12 education. Hutchison added that she believes there’s an attempt to remove “controversial” views from education, but that different perspectives and critical thought are integral to a good education and allowing students to form their own beliefs.

One resident of Deadwood expressed concerns over the terms “inherently divisive” and “controversial” used in the proposed policy.

“Our LGBTQ+ kids aren’t any of those things– They are human,” the resident said. “No one is trying to indoctrinate children, there is no gay agenda, we’re simply trying to keep kids alive.”

Dana Schubaeur, a special education teacher in the Lead-Deadwood School District said she is one of the teachers with a “Safe Space” sign on her door.

“My goal for these signs, in my own room, is to show every single student that walks through my doors that this is a safe place to learn and grow,” Schubauer said. 

One freshman from the high school spoke against the signs saying that she didn’t think teachers should be allowed to show support for LGBTQ students if they aren’t also allowed to be openly conservative or Christian in the school.

Dwayne Hess also spoke against the signs saying his children didn’t think teachers in the district were being neutral with the signs.

One parent said her child had transferred out of the Lead-Deadwood School District due to bullying from other students who insisted he was gay. The mother said the “Safe Space” signs deterred her child from reaching out to staff out of fear of not being helped.

After nearly two hours, the public comments ended. The proposed policy will next face a second reading at the next school board meeting.

KELOLAND News reached out to the Lead-Deadwood School District about the policy but has not yet heard back.