Students at a high school in Plum, Penn., are protesting a ban on apparel featuring the Confederate flag. The prohibition was recently put in place after a 16-year-old African-American student complained that a fellow student was wearing a hoodie bearing the battle insignia.
The student was initially reprimanded for wearing the clothing — but was then allowed to put it on later in the day.
Robert Williams, the father of the student who made the complaint, told CBS Pittsburgh, “My daughter shouldn’t have to endure or be subjected to hatred, bigotry, or any kind of racial animus.” He continued, “First Amendment rights aren’t absolute. I can’t run around and go into a movie theater and yell ‘Fire!’”
“To wear the Confederate flag in a classroom environment, in a school environment, it was very disruptive and upsetting to my child,” he added.
At the time of the complaint, Plum Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Timothy Glasspool told the news outlet KDKA that the Plum school district can only discipline students’ speech if it constitutes “a substantial disruption” to the school’s activities.
A ban was placed on clothing showing the Confederate flag after three more students wore similar items to class the day after the reported incident. Two were sent home after refusing to take them off.
“As an educational institution, we view this as a learning opportunity for our children and encourage all families to discuss how these symbols can cause fear or anxiety in others,” Glasspool wrote in a statement. “The practice of ethnic, religious, racial or gender-charged symbols that profess hatred, bigotry, or oppression has no place in any learning institution and will not be tolerated in Plum schools.”
Noah Leech was one of the students dismissed from school. “They basically told me I have to go home and there is a possibility I may be expelled for wearing my hoodie to school,” he told NEWS10. When asked why he felt so strongly about the hoodie and what it represents, Leech said he has worn the jacket to school many times before without an issue and doesn’t believe it presents a problem. “Our bloodline comes from West Virginia,” he said. “They were helping move slaves from the South into the North under the Confederate flag, so that’s what I stand for.”
Two freshman female students so strongly disapproved of the school’s ban that they held a protest in front of the high school and held up Confederate flags before classes started.
Kelsey Evans, one of the students, shared why she felt inclined to protest the ban. “I’m sitting out here today because I’m fighting for my rights to wear this Confederate flag to school, because it should be allowed. It’s not racist. It doesn’t mean slavery. It’s just simply a Southern flag.” She added, “I’m fighting for what I believe in, because so many people think it’s racist, but it’s not.”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s our freedom. If you’re from America — you were born in America — this is part of your history,” the other student in the video commented.
Evans also argued that the Confederate flag is no different from the U.S. flag. “This is what shapes America to be how it is today. It’s the exact same thing as the American flag,” she said.
Some parents were so disturbed by the students’ support of the Confederate flag that they escorted their children to school. “This is more than a statement of: I can’t wear what I want to wear. When you wear something that is racially insensitive, it’s not appropriate,” Dr. Troy Lyons, a parent who had walked his child to school, told CBS. “The Confederate flag represents oppression and slavery in the South, and we are not going to stand for that.”
When asked about other students feeling unsafe, one of the girls protesting said that she felt taking students out of class was more disruptive than wearing clothing displaying the flag.
The girls leading the protest both said that their parents fully supported them in taking a stand for the Confederate flag, and that they also planned to not attend classes that day. The principal eventually asked the girls to leave the site where they were staging the protest and told them they would be arrested if they refused, according to CBS.
While some students supported the flag, many voiced their disapproval. “There’s absolutely no place for bigotry at all, and it just doesn’t have a place,” student Josh Kirkpatrick told NEWS10. “If you want to wear a flag, it should be the American flag.”
The Plum school district incidents were not the first time that students have provoked debate by wearing apparel carrying the Confederate insignia to school. In March, a student at a Michigan high school was asked to change or go home because he was wearing a shirt bearing the flag.
The legal requirements for schools considering disciplining students for wearing clothing showing the Confederate flag are far from straightforward. The Tinker vs. Des Moines U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the subject established that there must be proof that the apparel in question will result in “substantial disruption of the school environment” before a school may reprimand a student.