Confederate decal poses tricky problem in Lakeville

By SARAH LEMAGIE, Star Tribune

Last update: April 30, 2009

A Confederate flag decal in the back window of a high school student’s pickup truck has sparked debate in Lakeville about the balance schools should strike between allowing freedom of expression and protecting students from harassment.

About 50 staff members at Lakeville’s two public high schools have signed a petition asking the school board to ban the Confederate flag from school grounds, and several teachers and students called for such a policy at a board meeting Tuesday night.

So far, at least, the school board has given district staff members no indication that it wants to consider the change, said Tony Massaros, the district’s director of administrative services. And Massaros said he believes an outright ban could be challenged for violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.

But some teachers and parents don’t see it that way. "We regulate hoods and we regulate hats yet we allow a symbol that is clearly designed to intimidate another group," said Lakeville South teacher Ken Williams at the school board meeting. "It is not a First Amendment right. It is just clearly wrong."

The petition stems from a window-size decal of the flag, which many people consider a racist symbol, displayed in a truck that a Lakeville South High School senior regularly parked in the school lot. The district would not name the student because of data practices laws.

Teacher, parents complain

On April 20, a Lakeville South teacher filed a formal complaint with the school district, arguing that the truck decal amounted to a violation of an existing district policy against harassment. The district, which had also received complaints from two parents, investigated the claim, but felt the mere presence of the truck and flag did not violate district policies or disrupt the educational process, Massaros said.

Instead, the district advised Lakeville South Principal Scott Douglas not to order the student to remove the decal, but to sit down with him, tell him about the complaints and explain why some people would be offended by the flag.

Many Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of bigotry, though others defend it as an emblem of Southern culture and history.

The student was not willing to remove the flag, but said he did not want to be perceived as racist and agreed to park his truck off school grounds, which he has done for a week now, Massaros said. No further action was taken. "I think, overall, he has been very cooperative in trying to find a resolution to this issue," Massaros said.

"From our perspective, we were able to resolve this issue with a less heavy-handed approach than others might take, and our goal was really to educate and help the student understand why other people might find this symbol offensive."

Other Minnesota schools have reacted differently. Last summer, three seniors were suspended and barred from Bloomington Kennedy High School’s graduation ceremony after school administrators said they carried and waved Confederate flags in the parking lot as students arrived at school.

The legal background

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals from students disciplined for displaying the Confederate flag as recently as 2000. Many lower courts that have faced the issue upheld decisions made by school administrators.

But Massaros said a key legal concern is whether students displaying the flag are disrupting the educational process, and he argued that wasn’t the case at Lakeville South. The school is not experiencing serious racial tension, the flag decal was displayed passively and outside the school building, and there was no evidence the student intended to antagonize others, he said.

This week, however, a second Lakeville South student displayed an actual Confederate flag in the windshield of his vehicle. The district viewed that as an "intentional escalation" of the situation, and so took a stronger stance, Massaros said. The student was ordered to remove the flag or lose his parking privileges. He took it down.

© 2009 Star Tribune.

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