Addressing the board

Lucy Gordon, president of the Tomah High School Diversity Club, addresses the Tomah School Board. Seated from left are school district Superintendent Cindy Zahrte and board members Pam Buchda and Aaron Lueck.

The Tomah School Board will decide next month whether to join the rest of the Mississippi Valley Conference in banning displays of the Confederate flag.

The board spent nearly an hour of its regular monthly meeting Monday discussing the issue at the Robert Kupper Learning Center. The board deferred action until a special meeting Feb. 4.

Tomah High School principal Robert Joyce said a student wearing clothing with the flag has triggered disruptions at Tomah High School.

“We’ve had some discipline issues that have come about from this,” he said. “It disrupts the learning process in general.”

Joyce said “no other school in the MVC permits” the display of Confederate flags.

School district superintendent Cindy Zahrte said several non-white parents and the district’s Local Indian Education Committee have expressed concerns.

Audience

The audience at the Tomah School Board meeting listens to the debate over the Confederate flag.

“We feel there is enough evidence that this is a distraction in our school,” Zahrte said. “We have a protected class of individuals who are saying they feel intimidated and threatened when that symbol is worn. It is our job as a school district to create a safe learning environment for every single child.”

Four speakers addressed the board. THS seniors Josh Holness and Lucy Gordon said the flag is a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

Holness quoted the designer of the flag, William Tappan Thompson, who wrote in 1863: “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”

Holness said, “Not only does the Confederate flag symbolize racism, but the flag also represents white supremacy. I wish this was enough to persuade the minds of thousands who wave this treasonous symbol in front of their homes and even wear it on their clothes.”

Gordon, president of the THS Diversity Club, said too many people are ignorant of the flag’s history.

“This flag is still a symbol of racism, bigotry and discrimination,” she said.

She said banning the flag is consistent with the school’s dress code.

“Our school already has rules and regulations regarding what can be plastered across student clothing, prohibiting images and words that allude to drinking, drug use and derogatory terms,” Gordon said. “We feel the Confederate flag belongs on this list.”

School board candidate Wayne Kling also spoke in favor of the ban. He said he supports the display of Confederate flags in museums and Civil War enactments, but he described the flag “as a battle flag turned into a political and social symbol.”

“I think it is not a big compromise to not wear a T-shirt to school so that another student feels safe,” he said.

Tomah High School junior Brett Larkin was the only person who spoke against the ban. He said it would violate free speech.

“From sitting during the pledge to student walkouts, freedom of speech and expression have always been protected on school campus by the First Amendment,” he said.

Larkin said he doesn’t display the flag himself and said, “I find it quite ignorant to display it as the state of Wisconsin is located nowhere near the former Confederate states ... I am not here to defend the Confederate flag; I am here to defend and protect my fellow students’ right to freedom of speech.”

He rejected the assertion that the flag symbolizes racism and said polling data show most Americans view the flag as a symbol of “southern pride.” He warned the ban would “enrage many rural students ... that support the flag.” He said also said there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.

He cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District in which the court upheld a student’s right to wear a black armband to protest the Vietnam War. The court in a landmark opinion wrote that neither “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

However, in 2007, the court ruled in Morse v. Frederick that a school district could suspend a student for displaying a banner “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” while standing across the street from his school during an Olympic torch relay. The court, while not overturning Tinker, cited an “important, indeed, perhaps compelling interest” in deterring drug use by students and asserted “the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that Tinker should be overturned.

Zahrte said the district has consulted with legal counsel and that the district would be on solid legal ground by banning the flag.

Board member John McMullen said he’s likely to vote for a ban.

“I’m largely persuaded by the staff and the parents who are concerned about safety in our schools and the sense that we encourage inclusiveness,” McMullen said. “It has now compromised our learning environment.”

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

(8) comments

Shaftan

Wayne Kling explained perfectly why this ban will fail under Tinker. It's a political symbol and the school district cannot censor political speech -- even if that political speech might be a threat to "public safety."

The only intelligent one here is Brett Larkin, who came armed with facts and whose views will be upheld once a non-Obama/Clinton judge gets ahold of this case. I'd like to shake his hand someday.

Jack

"protected class of individuals" ...this is the problem. When society or the school purposely creates victim "groups" and some of those groups are set up to be above another group then you inevitably will have these problems with offensive dress, comments, flags, mascots, etc. You are just begging for more conflict. Get back to freedom of expression. The only cure for hate speech is more freedom of speech and not top down arbitrary rules by a bunch of rubes on a school board (no offense but what the heck you you know and what makes you think your position is so grand). I sure hope TASD does not go down this road. Let the kids wear what they want to or then the next thing will be banning MAGA hats, Gadson flags and Milton Friedman.

Veridic

They should also ban the political party that created it.

Walleye

A representative of a school cant lead a student in prayer because the First Amendment states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", therefore a representative of a school cant censor a student since the first amendment also states "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech". It is a shame students are taught a very bad lesson - that laws are to be ignored or enforced based on the interests of whatever group has a privileged viewpoint.

The First Amendment was created specifically to protect people who want to express opinions from those who want to use public institutions to silence opinions. Public schools are legally required to respect students' civil rights - the First Amendment will trump all school board policies and bad judicial precedents until the Constitution is amended.

shameless

If you understood that many first amendment rights are surrendered at the doors of schools, you'd understand why your argument is incorrect. This has nothing to do with the privileged viewpoint, but everything to do with maintaining order in the school.

Walleye

Student rights cannot end at a school's door, that would be illegal. Teachers are allowed to keep order by punishing disruptive expression not contentious expression.

A flag is not materially disruptive unless it is blocking someone's view or whipping in the wind so loud it becomes an audible distraction. Any other disruptions would be caused by students and teachers deciding to focus on the flag instead of the day's lesson.

Armstrong

This is not a free speech issue. That flag is a terroristic threat. If you think it is about "southern pride" that's because there has been a big PR campaign to get you to believe that. It stands for treason and it stands for terrorism. Should some idiot fly an ISIS flag?

Walleye

The Constitution recognizes a persons right to fly any flag, including the ISIS flag, as long as it is not a direct call for violence. For example, if a student had a flag that literally called for people wearing yellow shirts to be punched, that would be incitement that can be punished. If a student had a yellow flag that many people believed called for violence but others argued was for school spirit, that flag would be protected speech - the government cannot assign implied meaning.

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