LAPEL — Lapel High School banned the display of the Confederate flag on school property — either on banners or student clothing — after receiving complaints from dozens of students.
The decision was announced Thursday, Aug. 31, after the students expressed concern about a small group students displaying the flag on their vehicles and clothing.
Principal Chad Kemerly sent an email that afternoon to Lapel parents highlighting the decision.
“Over the past two days, the display of the Confederate flag has caused a substantial disruption to the learning environment at Lapel High School,” the email said. “Due to the disruption, wearing and/or displaying items with the Confederate flag will be prohibited.”
Sophomore Morgan Knepp said she was upset by the display and doesn’t understand the sudden fascination with the symbol.
“They put the flags on their trucks and drive around like something is funny or cute,” the student said. “They do it in the parking lot before school. They just started doing this; that’s why I don’t get why just now they want to celebrate ‘heritage’.”
FLCS Superintendent Robert Fields said school officials spoke with a group of about five or six students about the board’s decision.
“We told them that school is not a place for political activism — it’s not a place to demonstrate and that sort of thing,” Fields said. “With what has been going on in America the last several months, that sort of thing is intimidating to some people. That’s not what we need at school.”
Citing recent violence on the campus of the University of Virginia and other sites concerning the removal of Confederate imagery, Fields said the safety of all students and the sanctity of the learning environment takes precedence over any First Amendment rights the students wearing the flag may refer to.
“That can substantially disrupt the learning environment at school, and we’re not going to have it, so we made them take the flags down,” Fields said. “They said they did understand and (hate) wasn’t the reasoning for doing this. They said it wasn’t a racist thing.”
Fields said the students did not give a reason why they were displaying the flags, but that they were concerned about their First Amendment rights. Fields said the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that those rights do not supersede the sanctity of the classroom.
“There are court cases that say students can protest or demonstrate at schools, but there have been cases since then that place restrictions on the First Amendment rights,” he said.
Among those are Bethel School District v. Fraser and Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., which found that certain limits on student expression are permitted by the First Amendment.
In the Fraser case, Justice Hamilton Burger wrote, “The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.”
Fields added his biggest concern is the safety of the students while at the school.
“For the last two days, there hasn’t been any violence or anything like that,” Fields said Friday. “But the Lapel Police Department was here this morning, just to make sure nothing happened.”
While students so far have heeded the school’s request, it’s clear tension remains between students who want to display the flag and those who are offended by its presence, officials said.
A video sent to the Times-Post on Friday shows several students gathered across the street from the high school, putting their Confederate flags on their cars. While it is not on school grounds, it is still troubling to Fields.
“It concerns me for the rest of the student body,” he said. “They may feel intimidation, fear or whatever from those actions. I think it’s ridiculous, and I don’t like it. There’s nothing I can do about that; I think it’s an attempt to intimidate, and I don’t like that at all.”
Junior Sydney Rusche is another student who said she was troubled by the display of the flags and worried that a few people are casting the community in a poor light by their actions.
“Mostly, I don’t like the reputation this whole debacle is putting on Lapel,” she said.