A Neosho teacher resigned last week after school administrators asked him to take down a LGBTQ pride flag in his classroom.
Junior high school teacher John Wallis said he put the flag on a bookshelf to let students know that his classroom was a safe place for LGBTQ students. After parents complained, the district superintendent asked Wallis to sign a statement agreeing to never discuss sexuality, gender or sexual preference in class.
Wallis is looking into legal options regarding Title IX protections against employment discrimination based on sex — including sexual orientation. He’s already filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and has begun the process with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Wallis, a first-year teacher who graduated from Webster University, was hired at Neosho Junior High School on Aug. 13. He was assigned to teach speech and debate, world mythology and theater. He was a graduate of the high school.
“My plan was to help create a classroom that was as inclusive as possible for all of my students and that was conducive to learning for those specific subjects,” he said. “I wanted to make it fun for them.”
Wallis also displayed a sign above the whiteboard that read, “Everyone is welcome.”
“I know what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ youth in Neosho, Missouri,” he said. “I was closeted my entire time in high school because I was afraid to come out because I saw how people were treated. But I didn’t think (the school administration’s response to the flag and sign) was going to be as aggressive as it was and as quick as it was.”
Wallis said he had met with school officials before the school year started about the sign and flag, and they had advised against displaying them. On Aug. 26, the third day of class, he was called in to meet with a school administrator after receiving a complaint.
“A parent had called and complained that I was going to teach their child to be gay, which you can’t do, first of all, because it’s natural. You’re born that way. It’s not something that can be taught,” Wallis said. “And so I was instructed that day to take down the signs and the flag. So I went back to my classroom, and I did that.”
The following Monday in class when students asked where the sign and flag were, Wallis said he told them that he had to take them down per the administration’s request and that he was sorry if anyone thought that the flag and the message had anything to do with the course content.
“I went a step further and said if you have a problem with that flag representing my students or myself, then there are other classes that you can go to,” Wallis said.
That statement prompted some parents to contact the superintendent, which is when Wallis was called into a meeting with the superintendent. He was asked to sign a letter saying that he would not discuss human sexuality, gender or his own sexuality. The penalty would be termination from his job.
“And it was very clear that if I didn’t sign that letter, I wasn’t leaving that room and I probably was not going back to my classroom,” Wallis said. “So I signed the letter.”
Neosho School District Superintendent Jim Cummins declined an interview but confirmed Wallis’ employment lasted from Aug. 13 until Sept. 1.
After discussing the situation with a Missouri State Teachers Association representative, Wallis decided the safest thing to do for his mental health was to resign. His plan was to step down Sept. 30, but on Sept. 2, school officials said they had already found a replacement and asked him to be out of his office by the end of the day, Wallis said.
“There is still discrimination everywhere across the country, especially down here,” he said. “And I know that people don’t agree with me. I know people don’t think that I’m who I am and the way I live is right. But that doesn’t mean that I deserve the hate that I’ve gotten and the treatment that I received.”
Wallis shared his story on Twitter on Sept. 4. He said he’s received a lot of support, including that of Missouri state Rep. Crystal Quade. But he’s also read some vitriolic comments condemning him.
“My hope is by spreading my story, that people understand that this is still happening and that it pushes people and districts to reevaluate their nondiscrimination policy,” he said.