Kansas student says flying Confederate flag not meant to be racist
LAWRENCE — A Kansas high school student who was disallowed from flying a full-sized Confederate flag from a makeshift flagpole on his pickup truck said he has been unfairly “singled out” as being racist.
The student said he had family on “both sides” of the Civil War and pointed out that he was flying both the Confederate and the United States flags from his vehicle. On Wednesday, the U.S. flag was still flying from the cab of the student's truck, which was parked near the entrance of Free State High School in Lawrence.
“I’ve had family from Arkansas, and I’ve also had family from the other side, so I fly the American and the Confederate on both sides to represent the people who have fallen in the Civil War,” he told the Journal-World.
There is no Lawrence school or district policy banning the Confederate flag, but Free State administrators decided to disallow the student from bringing it onto school grounds because it was disrupting the learning environment, they said.
But some Free State students would like to take that prohibition one step further, saying instead that since the flag has become a symbol of violent white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, it has come to foremost symbolize racism and violence against people of color. Without a specific ban of the flag, any future decisions regarding its display would be made on a case-by-case basis, and four Free State students are circulating a petition to create a districtwide ban.
Lanice Brown, a junior at Free State, said she believes in the right to free expression, but said that when the school bans items such as bandanas for being symbols of gang violence, it should extend such bans to a flag that also symbolizes violence.
“Because I wear a bandana and it doesn’t disturb anybody, but (teachers) say it refers to gangs which is violent, so I can’t wear it,” she said. “And this flag represents hatred, it represents violence, but he was allowed to fly it. So I didn’t understand how he was allowed to do that, but I wasn’t allowed to wear something that helped my hair stay back.”
Brown said helping all students to understand the history of the flag and what it represents to many people is also part of the issue. Wednesday morning, a school club hosted a discussion about the flag that began with its history and evolution, including the recently invigorated debate about the flag’s display after images circulated in the media of Dylann Roof — accused of murdering nine black victims in a Charleston, S.C., church — posing with a Confederate flag.
The discussion was part of the regularly scheduled meeting of the school’s “Can We Talk?” club, which is teacher-sponsored and focuses on racial issues. Brown said the student discussion was informative and open, with people expressing why they were or weren’t offended by the flag.
“It was more educating people rather than bashing people, and it was an open discussion where everybody was open to other people’s ideas,” Brown said. “I appreciated the opportunity to hear what other people think.”
About 35 students attended the discussion, which took place before school Wednesday.
Eli Jost, a junior at Free State, also attended the discussion and agreed that it was helpful.
“We didn’t hear from people that were pro flying the flag or anything like that, so we didn’t really get to discuss racism as it pertained to Free State, but I think we did get to discuss racism more as a whole,” Jost said. “And I think that was helpful, just to have that discussion.”
Maame Britwum, a senior at Free State and one of the four students who wrote the petition to create a districtwide ban, said understanding the history of the Confederate flag and what it has come to symbolize is a key factor in the student effort to prohibit it. She said that similar to the swastika, which once represented peace before the Nazis' rise to power, the meaning of the Confederate flag has changed and cannot be disconnected from the KKK and other white supremacist groups.
“When a group that has its basis in hatred, on oppression of groups of people, takes a hold of something and the symbol begins to change, you have to notice its change and say, ‘I shouldn’t be using this anymore,’” she said.
Britwum said she doesn’t think the intent of those displaying the flag is always malicious, but that not to recognize its negative connotations negates a key part of American history.
The petition to ban the flag districtwide is still circulating at both high schools. Britwum didn’t have an update on the number of signatures for the petition that is at Lawrence High, but said the Free State one has at least 200 signatures. Britwum said the thought process behind the petition was to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.
“(The Confederate flag) makes people feel unsafe, it makes people feel uncomfortable, and the school isn’t meant to be a place where people are made to feel uneasy about being in the building,” she said. “It should be a place that’s welcoming. It should be a safe learning environment.”
The petition cites six court cases involving school districts that have ruled in favor of a school environment free of disruption or upheld a school’s decision to ban the flag. The petition also states that allowing the flag to be flown violates Free State’s own discrimination and harassment policy.
Any change to district policy would have to be discussed and voted on by the Lawrence school board in a public meeting. The students said because they are still collecting signatures, they won’t be putting forward the petition on the Lawrence school board’s next meeting Feb. 8 and instead are planning for late February or early March.