By ALICIA PETSKA
The News Virginian
Friday, September 22, 2006
It wasn’t even one month into the new school year and Steven McDonaldson found himself in the principal’s office for the second time. He couldn’t believe it.
“I was shocked,” the 16-year-old Waynesboro High School junior said. “… I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t trying to offend anybody.”
Steven, a tall, polite boy who hopes to one day be a diesel mechanic, wasn’t being punished for anything he said or something he did in class. It was more a case of what you might call getting a failing grade in fashion.
He twice has been ejected from the classroom this year for wearing T-shirts bearing the Confederate flag.
The school dress code prohibits clothes that “reflect adversely upon persons because of their race, sex, color, creed, national origin, or ancestry,” and administrators have deemed the controversial Civil War battle flag to fall into that category.
Debates over the flag have been raging in the South for years, recently in places like South Carolina and Georgia, where government officials were asked not to display the Confederate symbol on publicly maintained property.
Local NAACP representatives said the flag continues to recall the days of slavery and racial strife for many African-Americans.
But for Steven, a native Waynesboro resident who says history is his favorite subject, those Stars and Bars are just part of his heritage as a Southerner.
“If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson,” he said, explaining his view of it as a symbol of Southern pride and independence.
“It represents what our ancestors fought for,” he said. “Slavery was an issue, but it was not the main issue. It was about the North and the South being separate.”
“The Confederate flag is part of the South, and I’m a Southerner. I’m going to wear it. … They don’t say anything to me when I wear an American flag shirt.”
Steven’s mother, Lisa Benson, describes her son as “just a good ole Southern boy.” She supports his decision to continue sporting the flag, even while educators object to it.
“I’ve done research on the Confederate flag,” she said. “If I thought it was prejudiced, I would not let him wear it. … I’m a mother and I would not let my child out of the house with anything that would offend.”
But it would be hard to argue the Confederate flag isn’t offensive to anybody.
The Rev. Mildred Middlebrooks, head of the Waynesboro NAACP, said she’s “certainly heard some things about it throughout the years.”
“It certainly gives the impression to many in the community that there are people who’d like to see the South rise again,” she said. “But that war was already fought and the North won. I think it shows a sense of divisiveness in the community.”
She recalled times the flag has been hoisted by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan – times, she said, “when hatred was ever so rampant.”
“I personally do not like to see it,” said Middlebrooks, who’s also a native Southerner. “… It does not bespeak to me any kind of positive associations.”
For Waynesboro High Principal Sue Wright, the difficulty becomes balancing one student’s right to self-expression with the rights of other students to feel at ease while at school. Wright said she was prohibited from specifically addressing Steven’s situation, but did speak to the general issue of wearing the Confederate flag.
“I love my kids to question authority and love the students to express themselves, and that’s why this is really hard for me,” she said. “I want to support their rights and support their views but, at the same time, make sure everyone feels comfortable in this environment. Because if you feel put down, it makes it difficult to learn.”
Wright said whether the flag was a symbol of hatred or heritage wasn’t her call to make. Her concern had to be on preventing disruptions in the classroom.
“Student expression is huge at this age,” she acknowledged, “and my right as a principal only comes into play when there’s a disruption in instruction. … I have to stay focused on keeping a learning environment for all children.”
The principal said there have been conflicts among the Waynesboro High students over the display of the flag, including some fights. Steven, who often wears Confederate flag shirts and sports a Confederate baseball cap on a daily basis (albeit not in school), says he has never been involved in any confrontation, although he acknowledged some students have made passing sarcastic remarks.
The debate over Confederate flag-themed clothing in the classroom has grown to be fairly common among Southern school districts, even spawning several lawsuits, two of which were recently settled in favor of the students.
In one landmark Kentucky case, Castorina, et al. v. Madison County School Bd., et al., a federal court of appeals ruled wearing the Confederate flag image did fall under First Amendment protection and schools could not prohibit it, providing it was not causing a disturbance. The ruling went on to say that schools that had been experiencing racial violence could not enforce a “viewpoint-specific ban” by barring the Confederate flag while allowing other racially sensitive symbols to be worn – in this case, T-shirts with Malcolm X’s picture on them.
The 2001 case was remanded to a lower court for trial and later settled out of court.
The ruling was applauded by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a pro-flag group that maintains a special fund to fight what it terms “heritage violations.”
Darryl Starnes, a Mechanicsville man and chief of the organization’s Heritage Defense division, said slavery was an “evil institution” that should have been abolished, but added that the Civil War was about more than that.
“These are American veterans,” he said of the Confederate soldiers. “Any way you cut it, these are American veterans. They fought and died in the hundreds of thousands to protect our farms and cities, and we honor that fact and along with that we honor the flags and symbols of that nation. It’s all part of it.”
“Nowadays,” he added, “it seems it’s against the law to discriminate against any minority group with the exception of the descending families of the Confederate nation. … The children of the South have a rich heritage, and they want to show that and they have a right to do so.”
For his part, Steven doesn’t intend to stop wearing Confederate flag shirts and plans to wear another one to school today.
“I am in the South, and that’s what I believe in,” he said simply. “… If you can’t go through life standing up for what you believe in, people are going to walk all over you.”