by Bonny C. Millard
of The Daily Times Staff

Advocates for keeping the Rebel flag part of Maryville school school-sponsored events are circulating a petition to press their point.

As of Thursday afternoon, 201 signatures had been gathered by organizer Gary Young, who said other flag supporters have also been handing out the petition to collect signatures.

Of those 201 signatures, there were 157 different addresses listed. Some of those signing are related in some way, such as with parent and child or by marriage.

Young said they have only been collecting signatures for two days and are continuing to get supporters to sign it.

“So much of things we’ve had to do here is catch up,” Young said.

The Maryville school board approved on first reading Monday a new safety policy for events that would ban all flags, noisemakers, laser-pointers and other items.

On June 13, the school board voted on a similar policy but some of the language in another section was changed, which is why the policy underwent a another first reading.

The policy has sparked a heated debate. Flag supporters say it is not about racism, but rather about school spirit. Supporters of the proposed new policy say the Rebel flag — the Confederate battle flag — represents hate and racism to some people.

During Tuesday’s meeting, people spoke both for and against the proposal.

Young said he believes the majority of people want to keep the Rebel flag. In fact, he would like to see it put to a referendum so the citizens of Maryville can decide.

“We believe, if it comes to a vote, we’ll soundly defeat them,” Young said. “These people (the school board) are trying to remove some 100 years of history by two readings.”

Young said he has never before seen the bitterness and division he saw the other night.

“We hoped the school board would genuinely listen to us,” he said. “People left that meeting feeling like it was a done deal.”

Putting the flag issue under a safety policy is a misnomer because there have been no problems with people getting hurt, according to Young.

“All that was, was just a smoke screen,” he said. “These people are political activists, plain and simple, and that’s not their job.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Mark Cate said his wife had been struck in the face with a flag pole.

Young said he also was upset with the way the board had handled the proposal, saying a workshop should have been held to let the public comment on the policy change.

Director of Schools Mike Dalton said recently that the policy was reported in the newspaper, and people had the opportunity to speak up at the second reading.

Rebel flag supporters are considering a lawsuit, even though Young had said during their meeting last week that they didn’t want to go that route.

“They’re going to make us take action,” he said. “That’s they only option we have.”

A nonprofit group in North Carolina, Southern Legal Resource Center Inc., is planning to meet with Young and others in August. Lawyer Kirk Lyons is an expert on First Amendment issues, according to Young.

The group does have some money to pay legal fees, but Young said he doesn’t know that will work out. However, he said he was told by members of the North Carolina organization that if the case had enough merit, money would not be an issue.

He added that if a lawsuit is filed, it would be filed individually against the school board members as well as the board.

Board member Denny Garner was the only board member to vote against the measure. He reversed his earlier vote.

Garner said children are not born to hate or to be prejudiced, but they are taught that as they grow up.

“That’s the main reason I changed my mind is because I don’t like the way people are educating their kids, on both sides.”

Garner also said he was concerned that no enforcement plan was in place. Maryville High School Principal Ken Jarnagin said Tuesday night that the plan is being drafted, but they were waiting on the final wording of the policy.

Garner, who played football at Maryville High School, said he is concerned about people’s rights.

“This issue means very little to me,” Garner said. “It doesn’t offend me or excite me to see them carry (the flag).”

Young said the supporters intend to fight the issue as far as they need to.

“I promise you we will not wilt and fade into the sunset,” Young said

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