The Tomah School Board ratified a ban of the Confederate flag Monday. By a 7-0 vote, the board prohibited students from displaying depictions of the flag on school grounds.
The vote came after several parents expressed concern that the flag carries racist overtones and is intimidating to non-white students. School district superintendent Cindy Zahrte said several parents expressed concern that students who wore the flag were “creating a hostile learning environment for their children.”
“A number of students were feeling threatened ... because we were allowing the Confederate flag to be displayed on student clothing,” Zahrte said.
The board first discussed the issue during a Jan. 21 meeting after the Local Indian Education Committee asked the board to take action. During the meeting, speakers told the board the Confederate flag is a symbol of bigotry and racism.
However, several community members have spoken out against the ban.
John Pleuss denied the flag is racist and said the ban is a violation of free speech. He said the flag “is part of our heritage.”
“There are probably a lot of people who don’t care for the American flag, either − did you take a survey on that?” asked Pleuss, one of three people to address the board. “What’s going to happen is that some people are going to lose their civil rights.”
Pleuss suggested the district hold a referendum on the ban.
Tomah High School junior Brett Larkin said the courts have generally supported a student’s right to symbolic speech.
“We can argue the perspective of the history of the flag either way all day long, but the perspective of the flag doesn’t matter,” Larkin said. “Once we start with the Confederate flag, we’re going down a very slippery slope.”
Larkin acknowledged it’s a “complicated issue” and that he “feels compassion for those who do feel offended by the flag,” but said those who wear it aren’t intending to offend anyone.
“The students I’ve talked said they’re not wearing it to be racist, they’re not wearing it to be intimidating,” Larkin said.
Tomah High School principal Robert Joyce pushed back against that contention.
“I can tell you right now some of the things I’ve heard from students wearing the flag (and) family members of students wearing the flag ... were disheartening,” Joyce said. “There has been a distraction in school because I’ve been the one to deal with it.”
Stephanie Begay referred to the incident at Baraboo High School, where students were accused of making a Nazi salute during a group photo.
“I feel we’re headed in that direction if we don’t take a stand,” she said. “I don’t want to get to the point where Baraboo is at.”
Board member Jerry Fushianes said the issue “isn’t for or against a flag.”
“Our responsibility is to create an environment that allows for the best possible learning opportunities for our students,” he said. “Anything that compromises that from happening needs to be addressed by the board.”
Fushianes said he has received multiple emails from people who said they will base their vote for school board on the issue.