This 2011 photo shows the mural on the wall of the gymnasium of Shenandoah High Shool, which was named for the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia from which most of the settlers in the Middletown area emirated. Staff file photo by John P. Cleary
Through trial and error, public school districts have refined the language to balance their students’ First Amendment rights while seeking to maintain order for the sake of safety.
For decades, districts fought on a case-by-case basis until the landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. That’s when the Supreme Court upheld the right of students who wanted to show support for a truce in the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands.
In 1986, however, the Supreme Court in Bethel School District v. Frasier upheld the suspension of Matthew Frasier for making a speech full of sexual innuendo not deemed obscene at a school assembly. At that time, the court applied the idea that speech that “substantially interferes with the educational process” is not protected.
As a result, many school districts today, including Lapel, have language to that effect in their dress code policies. This is what Frankton-Lapel Superintendent Bobby Fields said he relied on when the district moved to ban Confederate flag clothing.
LAPEL – Lapel High School found itself thrust into the national debate about appropriate expression and hate speech because school and district officials banned Confederate flag symbolism as of Sept. 1 after two incidents last week.
Principal Chad Kemerly said six students, none of whom had ever been in trouble before, arrived at school Aug. 29 in a caravan of pickup trucks with Confederate flags embedded in their beds. Kemerly said the caravan was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Civil War’s Second Battle of Bull Run, which was fought Aug. 28–30, 1862.
“I think the students have their own opinions about the flag and wanted to share those with others,” he said.
Frankton-Lapel Community Schools Superintendent Bobby Fields said the administration asked the students to remove the flags.
“They weren’t happy about it, but they did,” he said.
The next day, he said, about two dozen students came to school wearing variations of Confederate flag T-shirts. This time, the administration took the students aside individually to explain how wearing the shirts can be hurtful to students of color, especially their black classmates.
“We talked to them about what that flag means in America, what it stands for now, what the public perceives it as. It’s seen as a sign of racism in America,” he said. “They’re upset that’s how people perceive them. They’re saying it has nothing to do with racism. It was about southern pride for them and free speech.”
According to the Indiana Department of Education, of the 470 students enrolled at Lapel for the 2016-17 school year, the latest for which figures are available, six, or 1.3 percent, identified as black, and 11, or 2.3 percent, identified as multiracial. Many multiracial students also would be of African or black American descent.
Fields said the school hasn’t had any race-related incidents, to his knowledge. However, he believes the students’ rally behind the Confederate flag is a result of current events at the national level, including the deadly rally of white supremacists at Charlottesville, Virginia, and the movement around the removal from public spaces of statues portraying Confederate heroes.
“I have nothing to prove that, but why else would it be happening right now?” he said.
But Fields said he did not believe parents put students up to wearing the T-shirts the second day after the students were told to take down the flag on the first.
“I don’t think it was their parents because we called all the parents. Every one of the parents was supportive of the action of them taking it down,” he said.
Though nothing is set in stone, Fields said district officials are discussing educational programming, such as an assembly, to further drive home a message of inclusion.
Anderson/Madison County NAACP President James Burgess said his organization condemns the form of expression used by the students and supported the school’s decision to enforce its policies by prohibiting speech that would offend or intimidate black students.
“I’m sure that this behavior at Lapel High School does not characterize the attitude or feelings of the Madison County residents, which is why I appreciate all of you who join with and support the NAACP to ensure that our voices be heard by condemning this type of behavior,” he said.
Though many people believe the free speech rights of white students who want to wear T-shirts with the Confederate flag creates a stalemate with black students who have a First Amendment right to avoid offensive speech, that is not so, Burgess said. Because black people are a protected racial class under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, their rights are the ones that take precedence.
“You got to go to the law. You go to the 1964 civil rights laws. It makes it clear if you commit an act against someone from a protected class, you are the offender. You become the violator,” he said.
SHENANDOAH VALLEY HERITAGE
One district that faced its heritage head-on is Shenandoah School Corp. Named for the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia from which most of the settlers in the Middletown area emigrated, the school has traditionally honored its southern heritage in several ways.
IDOE reports the district has no students who identify as black, but it does have a population of 31, or 2.2 percent, that identifies as multiracial.
However, about a decade ago, as the district reconditioned a mural in the gymnasium at Shenandoah High School, the Confederate flag in the background was replaced with an 1865 Union flag.
“We did cover it over. Instead of leaving the Confederate flag, we replaced it with what I believe was a historical flag from 1865 when the war ended. We chose the U.S. flag because we felt it was reflective of the U.S. and the present day,” said Shenandoah Superintendent Ron Green. “In 1977 when it was placed there, the attitudes and what was going on in the country was different.”
There was no event that initiated the change, Green said.
“There have been young athletes and parents of African-American athletes coming to the school, and it was something we felt that they should not walk into the Shenandoah gymnasium and see the Confederate flag,” he said.
“This community, I believe, has an attitude of caring for others and others’ feelings and being welcome into our schools. It is an attitude, I believe, of acceptance.”
However, the mural still does depict a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier with a basketball and a bell between them.
“It’s not really meant to support one side or the other. It’s just a depiction of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia,” Green said.
Anderson Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Timothy Smith said in spite of its greater student diversity, the district runs into few race-related problems between students. IDOE reports about 22 percent of ACS’s students identify as black, and nine percent identify as multiracial.
“We have had a lot of great success. We haven’t had these issues over the last few years I’ve been in Anderson,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on things and being pro-active when we can and not creating issues that aren’t there.”
Smith said ACS’s dress code policy strives to be inclusive. But it also contains language that allows teachers and administrators to act if a student’s clothing choice becomes “disruptive to the educational process.”
“We are not here to be a message board for anything,” he said.
In addition to updating the dress code, as needed, Smith said he believes teachers take full advantage of the learning opportunities brought forth by current events.
“I’m guessing our teachers are addressing this in our history and social studies classes,” he said.