University of St Andrews’ Andrew Melville Hall (AMH) staff are under fire after removing flags from individual student bedrooms, citing an unsourced university-wide no-flag policy and allegedly telling affected students that their flags could be viewed as offensive, according to AMH residents.
The removed flags include a trans pride, multiple gay pride, Welsh, and a Maryland state flag. The incident occurred on Wednesday 18 September 2019, when residents had their first official room cleanings and inspections as scheduled.
Upon returning to their bedrooms, a number of residents found that the flags they displayed in their private bedrooms were taken down, and marked with a sticky note from the head of housekeeping stating that flags were not permitted in private bedrooms.
One of the notes, attached to a gay pride flag, which was removed from the student’s pin board and folded on their bed, read “[sic] I am sorry But you are not allowed to put flag’s up thank you … Housekeeping Supervisor.”
Flags were removed in blocks A,B, D, and E of AMH, each of which is cleaned by a different housekeeping staff. The next day, Thursday 19 September, the Deputy Residential Services Manager (DRSM) emailed hall residents saying, “We have had several questions about flags and posters.
“Flags and posters are permitted as long as they are not on or near the windows.
“If they are hung on the walls and any damage caused will be charged to each individual.
“If you wish to discuss this further please pop into the office.”
Though the email reversed the no-flag policy, some students expressed upset that there were not given an apology or further explanation for the initial taking down of flags in private bedrooms.
Students also expressed dismay in their resident group chat after members of the housekeeping staff told them that flags were removed because of “past controversy.”
This is in addition to other reasons for removing the flags including an University-wide no-flag policy and fire hazards, though the University does not hold an absolute no-flag policy in bedrooms as they are allowed on pin boards and many of the flags taken down were made of fire retardant material.
While the University does hold a policy that flags are not allowed out-side or on windows in halls of residence, flags are allowed on the room pin boards, contrary to what AMH residents were told by housekeeping staff.
After these complaints and the incident itself, members of the AMH hall committee attended the hall’s general staff meeting on 19 September and brought up the issue.
Staff in attendance included the Head Warden, Deputy Residential Services Manager, and Residential Services Manager of Andrew Melville Hall.
According to students in attendance at the meeting, who were Senior Student Conor Straub, Treasurer Chloe Gutteridge, and Deputy Senior Student Rachel Cripps, a member of the residence management team said “we live in a world nowadays where anybody can be offended by anything, so the flags were considered offensive.”
One student felt that this was a direct admission that members of staff were offended by LGBT+ flags. When asked why flags were removed from noticeboards when they were not visible through the windows or hanging outside the room, staff allegedly told students present at the meeting that someone could be walking by or opening the door and be offended, and that they were not previously allowing flags on pin boards because people could still see them.
However, the only people able to enter a private room without a student’s permission are members of staff, and many pin boards are not visible from the corridor or door.
When students at the AMH general staff meeting asked for more clarification as to why the flags were removed, they were told that the University of St Andrews has held a university-wide no-flag policy for years, and that it had just recently been changed.
However, the only mention of flags in the residential contract and accommodation agreement is in section 10.8.1, which states that students must not “hang banners, flags, or similar materials in windows or on the outside of the residence.”
While this is still the case, the removed flags from AMH rooms were safely pinned to the room notice-boards, which are the designated spot for students to hang pictures, posters, or flags as other wall hangings are prohibited.
Staff seemingly rectified the situation the day after room inspections (19 September) via email, saying that flags were allowed on noticeboards, and Conor Straub, Senior Student of the AMH committee, also noted that the situation was resolved.
He said to The Saint, “The situation in Melville regarding flags being taken down arose as the result of a misunderstanding – there was never any intention of targeting or discrimination against any particular group of people.
“The issue was immediately re-solved when brought to the attention of the staff and students continue to celebrate their identities within Andrew Melville Hall.”
However, some residents still feel that there are still explanations and apologies to be made from hall staff to those affected.
One student cited section 28.1 of the accommodation contract, which specifies that residence management must notify students to changes in the contract via a formal email or letter, meaning the initial taking down of flags under a non-existent policy was a breach of the contract.
Additionally, some residents of AMH felt they were owed an apology for their flags, particularly those being of LGBT+ or country pride, having been taken down even though they were found to be allowed on the room noticeboards the following day.
One AMH resident, who wished to remain anonymous due to discussion of their LGBT+ identity, told The Saint, “I think an apology should be given to students, and what the students have been communicated so far is inadequate. In my opinion, we should receive a sincere apology that includes info on where the decision came from and why it was made.”
The AMH resident continued, “As an LGBT student myself, I feel very upset with the situation as I was forced to explain to the staff member who confronted me the type of pride flag that was hung up in my room, potentially outing me to both that staff member and higher up staff members in Melville.
“I do not know how other LGBT+students feel about this, but I imagine that there is a possibility that other students feel the same way as I do. In my opinion, while the policy has been changed back to follow University policy, until we get an explanation as to why the policy was implemented in the first place the situation cannot be fully resolved.”
Regarding LGBT+ students that may feel marginalised after this incident in Andrew Melville Hall, a spokesperson for the University of St Andrews told The Saint, “We are a university that flies many flags, and is proud to celebrate diversity in all its forms. Our policy is clear: all expressions of identity should be supported, but materials in windows or on the outside of the residence are not allowed.”
“The Residential Services Manager and Deputy Residential Services Manager mistakenly thought that flags were not permitted to be displayed in bedrooms and instructed staff to remove flags. This was not targeted at any particular flag or group and all flags were taken down.”
After attending the 19 September meeting with staff about the incident, Deputy Senior Student Rachel Cripps told The Saint, “I felt that my voice was not heard, and that the voices of the LGBT+ and international students of this hall are being silenced through this act.
“I no longer feel comfortable having members of staff enter my private bedroom, which contains clues to my identity (such as flags, pins, etc.). I no longer feel comfortable in interactions with the RSM and DRSM.”
She continued, “In order to protect and foster the community of inclusivity and diversity in Andrew Melville Hall, as well as uphold the University’s legal obligation to up-hold Freedom of Expression and the Equality Act, I believe that some form of action must be taken.”
Ms Cripps reached out to President of the Students’ Association Jamie Rodney and Director of Wellbeing Flora Smith, encouraging them to take executive action.
Ms Smith told The Saint, “The Students’ Association has been in touch with the relevant university staff in order to address this incident.
“The Students’ Association will continue to advocate for the interests of minority students, as well as promoting inclusivity within the Association through the good work of our elected representatives on the Equal Opportunities Subcommittee and the ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy.”
Parker Hansen, LGBT+ officer for the Students’ Association, told The Saint he could not currently comment on the flag incident in AMH because the investigation was ongoing, but he emphasised the support offered by Saints LGBT+ and said they are happy to point them towards properly trained supporters through the Saints LGBT+ Facebook or email.
LGBT+ pride flags were not the only ones taken down, as others including the Maryland state flag and Welsh flag were also removed.
AMH resident Katie Roberts was told she could not hang her Welsh flag on her room pin board and initially assumed her cleaner was joking as the cleaner was Scottish and the flag was Welsh.
She was also informed by reception that the flag was not allowed due to “past controversy” and fire hazards, even though her flag was made of 100 per cent polyester, a fire-retardant material.
Ms Roberts said to The Saint, “My initial reaction was disbelief, followed by rage. How could I be censored in my own room? As protest I wore my Welsh rugby jersey until the issue was resolved.
“If you couldn’t have a flag in your own room, why could I wear a jersey around halls without comment. To me, my flag and the three feathers on my chest are one and the same.”
As some students were informed of the apparent policy change via a sticky note on their removed flag, Ms Roberts added, “In the future, if anything is removed in your room, I feel you should have a formal email rather than a post-it note and a reference to the piece of literature stating why it is that you are not allowed that item.”
A spokesperson for the University said, “When [the staff] were challenged as to why they had taken down the flags they checked the terms of occupancy and realised their mistake. According to the terms of occupancy it is not permitted to hang banners, flags or similar materials in windows or on the outside of the residence.
“Residential & Business Services are aware that the hall warden has been speaking with the students involved and it is hoped that a meeting with all interested parties can be arranged soon.”
Students in general praised the AMH committee, compiled of University students, for their quick action to rectify the situation, yet had mixed feelings as to how the hall staff handled the situation.
Ms Roberts said, “I think the hall committee acted quickly and professionally, much more so then the staff. I believe that an apology should be issued as LGBT+ students had their flags taken down with no explanation. Of course you would assume the issue was with what the flag represents rather than the flag itself, [and] this could have lead some students to feel unsafe and unwelcome to be themselves in their own space.”
Resident Dan Vinton also believes that an apology should be issued. He told The Saint, “This was a truly bizarre attempt by staff to enforce a non-existent rule for reasons that no-one can quite fathom, then cover it up with a vague reference to offence, fire hazard, or it being an established university-wide rule.
“Nothing can be done on the part of students to prevent episodes like this, because it was conducted on the part of staff alone. To prevent this, staff should be required to do what they’re already required to do, which is to communicate clearly and transparently about rules and follow the legally-binding residence agreement.”
AMH resident Elena Maria noted that her flag getting taken down felt like an invasion of privacy and censorship of how she decorates her room. She told The Saint, “I think it’s out of order that they acted in a way that was not in the contract. I think there needs to be a ‘discussion’ with students and staff members about privacy where the students and staff can together create official boundaries.”
Speaking on the incident, President of the Students’ Association Jamie Rodney told The Saint, “The Students Association has been in contact with Residential and Business Services, and with other relevant University staff in order to rectify the issue. I can’t comment on what is an ongoing investigation, but we fully support the right of LGBT+ students to express themselves, and feel included in their halls of residence.”
“I know we have a way to go before we totally eradicate prejudice on campus, but I’m incredibly proud of everything the Students’ Association, [led] by Saints LGBT+, has done in this regard.”
Rachel Cripps, who was quoted for comment, is Illustration Chief for The Saint, though this does not affect the reporting of the article.