21 high school students in western Virginia were suspended this week after a rally to protest a new policy that bans vehicles with Confederate flag symbols from the school parking lot. The students would not remove clothing they were wearing that displayed the symbol.
The Associated Press reports that Christiansburg High School senior Houston Miller, the organizer of the event, said that in his opinion the administration should not be able to tell students what they can wear or put on their vehicles. He added that he was encouraging more students to protest on Friday and has threatened to sue the school.
Christiansburg High School's dress code prohibits students from wearing articles that could reflect in a negative way because of race, gender, or other factors. A new policy put in place for this school year prohibits having Confederate symbols on vehicles in the school parking lot.
Since the June 17 murder of nine black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate symbols have come under scrutiny by the public. The shooter, Dylann Roof, had been photographed holding a Confederate battle flag.
Brenda Drake, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said the 21 students were first given in-house suspensions, but after being loud and disruptive, 15 students were sent home for a day. Two more students were suspended for additional days.
Drake added that although the school values the students' First Amendment rights, it also has to maintain an environment of safety and orderliness. Other incidents at the school, which included issues of racial tension, made the ban a necessary measure, she said. State data shows that 1,100 students attend the school and 83% are white, while 8% of the students are black.
"We are not issuing a judgment on the flag, but know that not allowing it at CHS supports a peaceful educational environment in the building," Drake said in a statement. "Continued racial friction suggests that lifting the ban of this particular symbol would cause significant disruption at the school."
Senior Morgan Willis says none of the people involved in the rally were racists or hateful. She described the decision to have Confederate symbols on clothing and cars as a part of the students' Southern heritage. Parent Josh Akers, who has a child in the grade school in the district, started an online petition that has over 1,200 supporters asking the school board to reverse the policy.
Drake says the Confederate symbols were banned from the school in 2002 after a number of fights had broken out over controversy surrounding the symbol. Beatrice Gitau writes for The Christian Science Monitor that the "no Confederate symbols on vehicles" ban has to be agreed upon in writing before students can receive parking privileges at the school.
Houston Miller, when requesting more protests for Friday, found many students hesitant to continue because of angry messages they had gotten online. The Washington Post's Rees Shapiro and Moriah Balingit report that the Confederate battle flag has long been a controversial symbol. Some argue that it is a proud symbol of Southern heritage and others say it is a symbol of hatred that glorifies slavery and bigotry.
Chet Morley, 18, graduated from Christiansburg High this year and now attends the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Morley is black, but said he never complained about the flag. He did, however, feel bothered when he saw the flag and thought of slavery. His stepfather is a descendant of a slave, and he believes his father's family, from the Bahamas, is linked to slavery, as well.