Swartz Creek senior leads battle for right to fly Confederate flag

Friday, September 15, 2006
By Robyn Rosenthal

Hats off to this young patriot!
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Principal, Michael Vanderlip at:
Deo Vindice

SWARTZ CREEK – Swartz Creek High School senior Brian Wendt wears displays of the Confederate symbol to school each day: a large square ring on his right hand, a colorful beaded necklace, a belt buckle nearly the size of his hand.

He said no one has complained.

But when he flew two Confederate flags from the back of his pickup truck at last Friday’s football game, Wendt crossed the line, district officials said.

School administrators forced Wendt to remove the flags, and later confiscated them when he put them back up at the end of the game. They have since been returned to Wendt.

"Where is the line between me wearing the accessories and flying the flag?" asks Wendt. "When I drive through these gates, my rights are not shed. I’m still an American citizen."

The 17-year-old senior attended this week’s school board meeting and asked them to reconsider the district’s policy. He plans to meet with Superintendent Jeff Pratt on Monday and hopes to persuade the administration to reconsider its stance.

School officials see it differently.

"For us, it’s symbolic of the incident a few springs ago," said high school Principal Michael Vanderlip. "A pin and belt buckle hasn’t drawn the attention of someone waving a flag in a school parking lot."

The incident Vanderlip referred to happened in spring 2005, when administrators banned the Confederate flag on school grounds after a senior calling himself a redneck and who frequently flew the Confederate flag, distributed fliers calling for students to "take back Creek" and "keep outsiders away from our town and preserve our way of life."

The incident attracted the attention of the NAACP, and the district responded the following year with diversity initiatives.

"Swartz Creek learned a lesson two years ago" . Displaying the flag has nothing to do with freedom of speech," said Superintendent Jeff Pratt, adding that administrators were reacting to policy, not complaints, when they talked to Wendt at the game. "It brings up a lot of feelings, both positive and negative, to a lot of people.

"There’s a time and place for everything. It’s appropriate for a NASCAR race, not appropriate on school grounds."

Some Swartz Creek students on Thursday said they haven’t even noticed Confederate symbols, in or out of school.

"I don’t know how I would feel (if I saw it)," said freshman Courtney Bouck, 14, who is black. She added she thinks displaying the flag reflects a person’s personality, not necessarily racial views.

But freshman Ashley Morse, 14, said a display of Confederate symbols paints all whites as racists.

"I’m kind of offended by it, even though I’m white," she said.

Wendt said he started researching the issue online and has found the issue isn’t isolated to Swartz Creek.

"This is going on all across the country, but nobody is talking about it," he said. "This is as big as religion in school. Nobody wants to talk about it because of what it is."

He said if he cannot persuade administrators to change the policy, he will try other things, such as starting a petition.

The student handbook doesn’t specifically ban the Confederate flag – although clothing with alcohol or tobacco products are clearly prohibited – but administrators say the flag falls under the general rule that prohibits anything causing a disturbance.

"The key issue is the board can make decisions on what can be displayed on school property," said Assistant Superintendent James Bleau said. "The courts have indicated we have that right."

The ACLU of Michigan has received only a handful of complaints regarding the banning of the Confederate flag at schools in the past decade, said the group’s legal director, Michael Steinberg.

He said courts nationally have ruled in favor of both students and schools, depending on the case, so there is no clear precedent.

"The courts have held just like any other speech, there is a First Amendment right unless the expression will cause a substantial distribution," he said. "Students don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates, but they’re not as strong."

In 2004, Grand Blanc disciplined two students for displaying a Confederate flag on their vehicles and in 2003 another student was suspended for bringing the flag to school. In July, Davison officials suggested taking down the Mississippi state flag from its City of Flags display because it bears a Confederate symbol in its upper right corner. The City Council has not acted on the suggestion.

Wendt said his flag displays are just part of his personality and reflect that he grew up on country music.

"If we’re not out there shouting racist slurs, then it means nothing but history," said Wendt. "They’re taking the Confederate flag way out of proportion."

© 2006 Flint Journal

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