Mother says child has right to celebrate ‘Southern heritage’
By Ed Farrell Staff Writer

Nearly a century and a half after the conclusion of the Civil War, a Henderson woman is ready to launch an all-out assault against the Chester County Board of Education over a rule banning the wearing of the Confederate battle flag.

On three different occasions, Linda Strong’s daughter, Kayla, a 15-year-old freshman at Chester County High School, has been forced to cover up, alter, or remove attire or jewelry bearing renditions of the red, white and blue stars and bars of the Confederate States of America.

“Students should have the right to be proud of their heritage,” Strong told the board Thursday night, adding that if the district continues to act in such a fashion that causes her daughter embarrassment and humiliation, she will have no choice but to file suit against the local system.

Noting that April is “Confederate Heritage Month,” Strong – a long-time member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and whose family is actively involved in Civil War reenactments – intends on allowing Kayla to once again wear the shirt, one of a popular line produced by Dixie Outfitters, to school.

In an interview with the Independent, Strong said she is not interested in seeking money from the district, only to allow her daughter to be able to celebrate her heritage and to exercise free speech, as is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s about time we stand up for our Southern heritage, and our Constitutional rights,” Strong said.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the board took no official action regarding Strong’s request, stating only that it would refer the matter to the board’s attorney for guidance.

Board Chairman Dwain Seaton, however, made it clear that the district’s current ban of wearing of the flag would be enforced should Kayla attempt to wear the controversial symbol to school.

“If she does,” Seaton said, “she will be disciplined as a violation of our policy.”

At least one teacher present at the board meeting – Kim Mitchell, who teaches fifth grade at Chester County Middle School – said it was her opinion that the Confederate flag should continue to be banned.

“It is extremely offensive to lots of students,” Mitchell told the board. “I don’t think any student should have the right to be offensive to other students.”

Contacted by the Independent on Monday, Nashville attorney Chuck Cagle, who represents more than 70 school districts across Tennessee, including Chester County, said he will discuss the matter with the Superintendent John Pipkin.

“I understand that folks do have strong feelings about this,” Cagle said. “I will look at the details of this particular case and discuss it with the superintendent and the school board and advise them appropriately.”

Currently, there are two cases in federal court in the state of Tennessee alone – one each in Blount and Anderson counties – over nearly identical claims, and a 2001 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which includes Tennessee, ruled that schools cannot summarily ban the wearing of the Confederate flag without documented proof such displays are disruptive to conduct and order.

In the Anderson County case, Tom DeFoe, a student at Anderson County High School, claimed the wearing of attire featuring the Confederate flag was his right “as a Southerner” and one who “takes pride in his Southern heritage.”

In the Blount County case, three students at William Blount High School filed suit after being disciplined for wearing “clothing and other items that contained the Confederate battle flag” which the students consider representations of their “Southern heritage.”

In most cases, school districts have argued that the Confederate flag is considered to be “offensive” to some groups, particularly black students, who equate the flag with slavery, and have subsequently banned the wearing of the symbol to avoid disruption and conflict among students.

In cases where districts have shown proof of a history of actual disruptions, such as fights or other racial unrest linked specifically to the wearing of the Confederate flag, the courts have generally ruled in favor of the bans.

However, mere concerns that such displays are “likely to cause disruption or interference,” as is the wording of the Chester County Schools dress code, is not justification for a wholesale ban, the courts have ruled.

Strong said she is not personally aware of a single incident of unrest or disruption due to any student wearing the battle flag or any other Confederate item.

The district’s dress code does not specifically ban the Confederate flag – or any other specific item of clothing.

Three paragraphs in its entirety, the dress code states that “Students shall dress and groom in a clean, neat and modest manner so as not to distract or interfere with the operation of the school.”

The dress code goes on to state: “When a student is attired in a manner which is likely to cause disruption or interference with the operation of the school, the principal shall take appropriate action, which may include suspension.”
Chester County High School Principal Troy Kilzer, however, said the high school’s student handbook does address the issue further.

The portion of the handbook focusing on student behavior and discipline, specifically Rule 3 – Dress and Grooming – prohibits “articles of clothing that may have written, stitched, or printed any logo, or comment that promotes or advertises alcohol, drugs, tobacco, suggestive sexual comments, vulgar/obscene language, hate, racial defamatory remarks or symbols or any group which represents this violation.

It is this section, Kilzer said, that is referenced in the case of the Confederate flag.

“In the case of the Confederate flag, we’re following the criteria that it’s a racial remark,” Kilzer told the Independent Monday. Kilzer said while he and his staff respect a student’s individual right to free speech, “the primary reason children are here is to be educated, not to express their opinions on a t-shirt.”

Strong brought her daughter’s shirt – a Dixie Outfitters shirt that bears a large picture on the back of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the words “Legends of the Confederate States Navy,” and a small Confederate battle flag.

Ironically, in 2004, Kayla, while a student at Chester County Middle School, was granted, in advance, permission to miss an entire week of school by Principal Randle Fenimore, to participate in a Charleston, S.C., memorial service for the crew of the H.L. Hunley, Strong said.

On one occasion, Strong said, her daughter was asked to turn the shirt inside out; on a second, to cover the portion of the shirt that includes the Confederate flag. On both occasions, Kayla did as she was requested without incident, Strong said.

On a third occasion, Kayla wore a pair of Confederate battle flag earrings to school; when asked to remove them, the teen again complied.

Now, however, Strong said both she and her daughter have had enough.

“I have seen children wearing Gothic attire, and nothing is said to them,” Strong said.

Kilzer, however, said Mrs. Strong was incorrect in her assertion that “nothing is said” to other students, including those who partake of Gothic attire.

“Look, Kayla is a great student, and she has been recognized for her outstanding work,” Kilzer said. “But I have never discussed specifics of one student with another. I haven’t aired Kayla’s wash with the Gothic students, nor have I aired the Gothic students wash with Kayla, so there is no way for Mrs. Strong to know what has or hasn’t been said to those particular students.”

Goths typically favor dark-colored attire, and in some cases wear extensive amounts of black makeup, including lipstick and nail polish, to express their individuality. Goth attire and subculture have been linked to disruptions in other school districts, and in many cases, students who openly embrace the Goth culture have been subjected to ostracization, taunting, and in some cases, physical attacks by other students.

According to Strong, no one has ever explained to either her or her daughter as to why the Confederate flag has been deemed so objectionable it must be banned for fear of causing disruptions.

Strong said, however, the racial claims most likely have roots in the fact that extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, publicly display the battle flag and use it as a recognizable symbol.

“I think it’s a disgrace the way the battle flag has been linked to the KKK,” Strong said.

In Kayla’s case, indeed in most cases Strong said she is aware of, race has absolutely nothing to do with the motivations of the people who wear the Confederate battle flag.

Kayla’s maternal great-great grandfather, Henry Lovett, fought in the Civil War under Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest; two of her great-great-great grandfathers – Eliza Hutcherson and William Strong – also fought for the Confederacy.

The family has long been involved in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and are members of the SCV’s Freeman’s Battery, Forrest’s Artillery, Camp 1939.

“We are not racist, and this has nothing at all to do with race,” Strong told the Independent. “This is about my daughter’s Constitutional right to free speech, and her desire to honor her heritage and history. We believe in our history, and believe in honoring the guys who fought for and died for their beliefs in the Civil War.”

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