Before school administration decided to disallow it, the full-sized Confederate flag had been flying from a makeshift flagpole on a student’s truck in the Free State High School parking lot for more than a week. The flag may be gone, but it isn’t banned, and some students would like to change that.
Unlike policies banning hats or T-shirts depicting alcohol or drugs on school grounds, there is no school or district policy banning the Confederate flag. Several students at Free State have started a petition to create such a policy and plan to present it to the Lawrence school board at an upcoming meeting.
“Although it’s definitely great that the school administration has taken the initiative to go ahead and say that they’re not OK with (the flag), it’s definitely still important to try to make it an official policy so that people do know about it and it’s something that is part of all rules,” said Abena Peasah, a junior at Free State and one of the students who drafted the petition.
Peasah and three other students drafted the petition calling for a district policy to ban the flag that has gathered more than 200 signatures since it began circulating late last week.
More than a quarter of the 1,700 students who attend Free State are nonwhite, and about 6 percent of the students are black, according to statistics from the Kansas State Department of Education. Districtwide, more than 30 percent of students are nonwhite.
Without a specific ban of the flag, any future decisions regarding its display would be made on a case-by-case basis. District officials said this week’s decision to disallow the student from flying the flag was based on the disruption of the learning environment. Lawrence schools Superintendent Rick Doll said that decision was made in conjunction with the school’s principal, the president of the school board, the district’s legal department and Doll himself.
“Students don’t give up their constitutional rights when they enter the school house door, that’s kind of basic school law,” Doll said. “But balance that with a disruption to the learning environment, and in this case, we decided that the disruption outweighed or trumped the right to free expression.”
The students opposed to the flag's display don’t think that decision should be made case-by-case. 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.
“Having to walk past an unequivocal symbol of racism and discrimination on our way into school is hardly freedom from discrimination,” the petition states.
That school policy states that the Lawrence public school district is committed to providing a positive and productive learning and working environment, free from discrimination and harassment. The petition claims that allowing the flag fails to maintain a safe and positive atmosphere:
“A symbol of slavery and white supremacy cannot lead to a positive environment for its students. This flag creates a hostile environment that is fragmenting our school. It is impossible not to see this blatant display of racism as a threat to students’ safety. After all, we are speaking of the very flag flown in a war on the side committed to the subjugation and eternal slavery of African American people.”
The school’s discrimination and harassment policy defines discrimination as follows:
“Discrimination is conduct which affords a student different treatment, solely on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner which interferes with or limits the ability of the student to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or programs of the school.”
The petition also notes other school policies, such as banning hate messages on clothing, gang symbols and the wearing of hats in school, and that those practices are inconsistent with allowing the Confederate flag on campus.
“We fail to see how the school can ban wearing hats within school yet ignore the symbol of slavery,” the petition states.
Peasah said the petition is currently circulating at both Free State and Lawrence high schools, and that she is working to add the proposal to the Lawrence school board’s agenda. The board’s next meeting is Feb. 8.