Students ‘fight’ for right to wear Confederate flag

By Stephanie Broadbent , Carolina Morning News

BEAUFORT: Some promise more protests if School District continues punishing students for clothing.

More than 100 teenagers, parents and supporters marched to the Beaufort County School District offices on Friday to protest after about 45 high school students were suspended this week for wearing Confederate emblems on their clothes.

They came with large battle flags, Dixie Outfitter t-shirts and handmade signs. Mothers, fathers and at least one grandmother joined the teens while school district workers peeked from windows or went on with their work.

"Support your rights," the youngsters screamed. "Stand here and fight."

The protest followed three days of suspensions at Battery Creek and Beaufort high schools. Students wearing shirts with Confederate emblems had been told to change their shirts or face suspension Wednesday. Many refused and were sent home for two to three days. Others wore the shirts in protest Thursday and Friday and faced the same punishment.

In the midst of the controversy that followed, some students said administrators took away even more clothing options.

Boys haven’t been allowed to wear solid white t-shirts for some time because of concern about possible gang affiliation, but now students say they were told they can’t wear all black or dress entirely in any one color. Some say they were also told to forgo Tommy Hilfiger fashions.

School District Spokesman John Williams acknowledged that white t-shirts were banned, but said he didn’t know if students had been told to steer clear of Tommy or same-color clothing.

Although the dress code doesn’t specifically forbid Confederate emblems or some other outlawed garments, the district’s Code of Student Conduct gives administrators discretion to prohibit "any articles of clothing or other items which may foreseeably disrupt or interfere with the school environment."

"If it’s got a Confederate flag on it, it’s considered disruptive," Williams said. "To some, (the flag) represents heritage. To others, it represents hate. To the School District, it represents a disruption in the classroom."

But many students and their parents say the shirts haven’t caused any disruption until students were suspended and many teenagers have been wearing them all school year.

"I’ve worn mine lots of times," said Battery Creek High School sophomore Kaity Holbrook, who attended the protest with two friends. "All of a sudden they’ve made it an issue."

Williams said he didn’t know if administrators at Battery Creek or Beaufort High had enforced a dress code banning the shirt. There was no particular reason why enforcement started this week, he said.

Administrators do have discretion in deciding what might be disruptive. Some parents complained that black students can wear Malcolm X shirts but students who took pride in their heritage were getting into trouble for wearing shirts that expressed theirs.

"Malcolm X is open to interpretation," Williams said. Some may feel he represented one thing, but others may believe he represented something else, he said.

That’s what some protesters said about the Confederate flag.

Glenda Pinto of Beaufort attended the protest in a Civil War era dress to support her granddaughter, Brittney Benton, who was suspended for wearing a Dixie Outfitters shirt Wednesday.

Pinto said she and her granddaughter are both Civil War re-enactors.

"She’s never had any suspension or been in any trouble at all," before being suspended for refusing to change her shirt, which had a small logo on front, Pinto said.

Pam Jerrell attended to support her daughter, Jessica.

Jessica Jerrell marched wearing the same shirt that got her suspended for two days. There is a small Dixie Outfitters logo on front and three baby chickens on back, below the words "Dixie Chicks."

Administrators were hoping the suspensions would teach the students a lesson. But Pam Jerrell wants her daughter to learn a different one.

"To stand up for what she believes in," Pam Jerrell said. "I’m willing to go to court. I’ll even pay."

The protest drew curious looks from some, especially after protesters took to the streets of Beaufort, even crossing the bridge over the Beaufort River with long Confederate flags flying behind them.

John Thomas Cripps traveled to Beaufort from his home in Mississippi to support the protest. He’s chairman of an organization called He’d heard about the protest after someone sent him an e-mail directing him to a newspaper story.

"I took a look at the picture of three lovely southern belles being suspended for their shirt and I said what chivalrous southern gentleman wouldn’t come to the aid of these ladies," he said.

The protest won’t be the end of the matter, he promised. It was planned on short notice but he wants to organize a protest on an upcoming Saturday that would draw people from other states.

"I know I can get a lot of Mississippians up here," he said.

But even if more protests are held, and even if they attract more people, they won’t change the School District’s policy, Williams said.

He met with Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Herman Gaither and another administrator to discuss the Confederate emblem ban on Thursday.

"We looked at the policy, we talked about it," he said. "We agreed it was fair and in the best interests of all students."

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