Donovan Stokes wearing his Confederate flag shirt. (Photo: Screenshot/WoodTV)
Last July, the Confederate flag that flew for years on the grounds of the South Carolina State House came down, removing one of the last traces of the rebel symbol in the United States. But this sign of progress, a monumental one made by Governor Nikki Haley following a tragic shooting, didn’t erase all traces of the Southern symbol. Recently, a student at a Michigan High School wore a shirt with the battle insignia on it and was asked to either change or go home.
Caledonia High School’s principal made the request of Donovan Stokes, a junior, because of how the flag is perceived by others, feeling that article could contribute to a hostile environment for the rest of the student body.
“I wore everything as proper. This is just a shirt,” the teenager told WSPA of the incident. He claimed that the school’s booting him from class was considered bullying and could potentially lead to his loss in education.
But the school district’s superintendent, Randy Rodriguez, held up the principal’s decision. “Any type of attire that might challenge, that might create disorder or disruption to the environment, we have a responsibility to prohibit that attire,” he said. “We love freedom of speech and we educate kids and we want them to know that they do have the right to stand up and speak their minds and share their opinions, and we value that as much as anybody else.” He added, “At the same time, if that is going to disrupt our educational setting, that has to come first. That climate that we create for students to learn and grow has to come first, so that’s why we have to be able to respond the way we are responding.”
Except Stokes isn’t the only student to dare to wear an item with such loaded political history. At a Virginia high school in September, 23 students were suspended for breaking the dress code when they all wore different articles of clothing with the Confederate flag. The Christiansburg High School teenagers wore the battle symbol en masse to protest a policy that bans any dress that could “reflect adversely on persons due to race.” The group claimed that this violates their First Amendment rights. Forty students at Cabell Midland High School in South Carolina, the same state where Dylann Roof gunned down nine parishioners at church, staged a similar demonstration against their dress code, with two students subsequently receiving suspensions.
For O’Fallon Illinois Township High School’s Homecoming week, one student wore a Confederate flag shirt for Red, White and Blue Day, which prompted a riot among students in the cafeteria during lunch. Christopher Shearer just wanted to show his “individuality” at Lebanon County Career and Technology Center in Pennsylvania for a tee that featured the Confederate flag and the term “Redneck.” He wore it as a representation of his personal “rebellious standpoint,” not as racist statement. He was still kicked out for the day.
While the students might insist that being punished for fashion infringes on their freedom of speech, precedent sides with the schools’ right to either remove the student or force him or her to change clothes. Since 1969′s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, when students were suspended for wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War, nearly all cases of similar nature have sided with the schools. This landmark case said that school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. Multiple other suits specifically involving the Confederate flag also plainly considered the symbol offensive.
As Julie Zerbo, lawyer and founder of The Fashion Law, explained, in order to legally ban students in public schools from wearing Confederate flag tees, school officials must have enough evidence to conclude that such shirts will lead to a substantial disruption of the school environment. One example being that the item at hand disrupts schoolwork by exacerbating racial hostilities, therefore leading to fights and similar disruptions. Zerbo also stresses that it’s worth noting that in the instances at hand, the schools are all public institutions, which makes them “instrumentalities” of the government and thus, governed by First Amendment rights. Different rules apply for private school settings.
So why do so many teenagers continue to wear the Confederate flag? The most likely answer probably is that they’re ignorant of the emblem’s violent and prejudicial history. Stokes defended his decision to wear the rebel flag, saying, “It’s more of like a history thing and it’s just a war flag from back in the day, and I don’t think it meant anything by it.” Zach Comer, a student who participated in the September protest at Christianburg, said, “It’s a lifestyle, y’all wouldn’t understand.”