Brookville site of rebel flag protest

Jennifer L. Berghom
Lynchburg News and Advance
March 27, 2004

Brookville High School sophomore Jerrica Wilhelm said she and other students heard a rumor Thursday that school officials were going to ban clothing bearing the rebel flag on campus.

So she decided to wear a black T-shirt bearing the Confederate and American flags that said “fly me with dignity, not bigotry” the following day to defend her rights to express herself, she said.

“I said, ‘I don’t know about y’all, but I’m going to wear my shirt,’” she said.

When she arrived at school, she noticed many other students had the same idea.

“I walked in and saw nothing but rebel flags. People stood up,” she said. “The flag is not about racism.”

But after her first class, school officials began pulling students out of class who were wearing the shirts and brought them first to the front office, then separated them between the school auditorium and other rooms in the building, she said.

Wilhelm, 16, was one of several Brookville High School students who was suspended from school Friday for wearing clothing donning the controversial flag.

“We sat in there for four hours. Some people gave up, one mom came in with a rebel flag on (when picking up her child),” she said.

One student even wore a shirt bearing an old union flag and joined the others, she added.

Wilhelm said school officials told her and other students that they were causing a disturbance, but she said she didn’t see any problems occurring.

“We’re representing our heritage,” she said. “It was a big deal when it didn’t need to be.”

Brookville High School Principal Jim Whorley said he believes the incident stemmed from one that occurred the day before, when roughly two dozen students came to school wearing T-shirts bearing the Confederate flag. School officials asked them to either turn their shirts inside out or change them because it was causing racial tension at the school.

Whorley said he does not know why the group of students decided to wear the shirts on the same day.

To protest the school officials’ decision, more students wore shirts with the flags the next day, which caused another disruption, he said. The principal said he was not sure how many students wore the shirts to school, but he estimated between 80 and 90 students.

There were no fights, he said, but tension was felt throughout the school.

So, he and other school officials asked the students to turn their shirts inside out or change them, or else they would be suspended for the remainder of the day.

Whorley said most of the students complied with school officials’ requests, but roughly 15 students were suspended for the remainder of the day.

“The vast majority of them were very respectful,” he said, adding that he and other school officials spoke with students about the flag and how it can be interpreted.

“I think they came out with a better understanding of it,” he said.

Whorley denied rumors that the school said it was banning clothing showing the Confederate flag and said that while the symbols are not specifically prohibited from the school’s campus, the school has a blanket policy that states if students wear something that causes a disruption, school officials can ask students to change their clothing or take disciplinary action.

“Our job is to keep order in the school. Suspension is the last thing we want to do because we can’t teach (students) if they’re suspended,” he said.

According to the Campbell County Schools’ student handbook, “wearing of clothes, jewelry, or other apparel or personal belongings that are likely to lead to disruption, advocate violence, alcohol or other drug use and/or distribution; that represent gang activity and/or membership; that advertise obscenities; or that reflect adversely on persons due to race, gender, creed, national origin, physical, emotional, or intellectual abilities; or that are considered to be revealing, promiscuous, provocative, or otherwise inappropriate (such as see-through shirts) is prohibited.”

Campbell County Schools’ assistant superintendent of instruction John Erb said school officials followed the school system’s rules when they suspended the students.

“Because of the disruption the decision was made, which is proper by law,” Erb said.

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said while schools have the authority to restrict what students wear, banning specific items is not allowed.

“Schools should have open policies about students expressing themselves. While schools should not quash (students’) viewpoints, the school can have its own viewpoint,” he said.

So when schools contact him about situations similar to this one, he suggests that they use the incident to educate students about how the clothing or other items can be perceived. Schools can invite guest speakers to talk with students or hold assemblies to alleviate any tension, he said.

Wilhelm said she won’t wear shirts with the flag on them to school anymore, but she feels the school took away a privilege she had. She said she wore the shirt to educate others that the flag does not stand for racism, but reminds people of how the Southern states fought against taxation and for states’ rights.

“I have used this shirt in positive ways and I don’t think I should be punished for it,” she said. “This is the South, this is Virginia. We should be able to wear the flag in pride.”