Students suspended after protests

By Jennifer Moore, Carolina Morning News

Brandi Fricke was "born and raised" in Alabama and is proud of her Southern heritage.

To show her pride, Fricke, a sophomore at Battery Creek High School, said she regularly wears T-shirts that represent different aspects of life in the South.

So when Fricke heard that four students at Beaufort High School had been suspended Monday for wearing shirts that depicted the Confederate flag, she and about 50 other Battery Creek students decided to protest Wednesday, wearing shirts they say represent their Southern heritage.

The students were called down to the office and asked to change. If they refused, they were immediately suspended for two days. Eighteen students, including a few black students, were suspended, said Rodney Jenkins, the school’s principal.

Fricke’s shirt has a small Confederate flag on the front with the words "Legends of the Confederacy." The back features three flags, including the Confederate flag, and says, "These colors don’t run. They never have and they never will."

She said she has worn the shirt before and it has never been a problem.

"This is not a racial issue whatsoever," she said. "I’ve always worn it to show my Southern heritage."

Jenkins said the school has not had many problems with students wearing Confederate flags in the past.

"To tell you kids didn’t get away with it would be a lie," he said. "We are into looking at kids’ faces."

The difference on Wednesday, Jenkins said, is that a large group of students met in the parking lot and entered the school together to make a statement.

"That’s OK," he said, "But they all knew what the reaction was going to be."

Jenkins said he wished the students had chosen a different way to make their opinions known.

"My kids are so creative," he said. "There could have been a million other ways to make their point. … They chose to be followers, that is what upsets me."

Brook Armstrong is one of the students suspended from Beaufort High School on Monday for wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt.

She and other students gathered Wednesday morning on the sidewalk near their high school to protest the decision, holding flags and signs that said things like, "Heritage, not hate."

Armstrong said about 75 students attended the protest, which was intended to be "peaceful," with "no cussing or saying anything mean."

She said she went into the school on time so she wouldn’t be tardy, but was immediately escorted to the principal’s office.

After waiting for about 35 minutes, Armstrong said she called her mother and left school. She was not wearing a Confederate flag Wednesday, but she said that a few students who were wearing shirts with flags were suspended.

Bill Evans, principal of Beaufort High School, was not available for comment Wednesday.

Robby Sofaly, a 16-year-old sophomore at Battery Creek High School, said the students have been in touch with the Southern Legal Rights Association in Columbia.

"I don’t think what we did was wrong," he said. "This is where we come from. … It represents Southern heritage, which is my heritage. I don’t wear it to get a rise out of somebody."

John Williams, the school district’s executive director of communications, said he understands the argument about Southern heritage, but it should be "abundantly clear that the Confederate flag is a disruption in school."

The Beaufort County School District’s dress code states, "The Board of Education does not want to unduly restrict individual preference; however, the administration may prohibit the wearing of any articles of clothing or other items which may forseeably disrupt or interfere with the school environment."

The code does not make reference to specific symbols or clothing, but Williams said it includes references to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, excessive facial piercing and any offensive symbols or slogans.

So, Williams said, students could wear shirts that make reference to Southern life as long as they don’t include "the image that is associated with hate by a large portion of our community" – the Confederate flag.

Battery Creek students said they were in the process of getting a permit to rally in front of the school district building on King Street in Beaufort at 3 p.m. Friday. Beaufort students are planning an additional protest.

Williams said he thought the timing of these demonstrations is "interesting."

Earlier in the week, he said, the district’s main concern was how schools would educate students about the conflict in Iraq.

"Our country is on a terrorist alert, but what are we talking about here in Beaufort County, South Carolina? Something that happened 150 years ago."

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