Days after one student’s Confederate flag-themed attire prompted complaints from parents and peers, officials at a western Pennsylvania high school say more students are arriving for class with similar clothing on, thrusting the school into the midst of a national debate over the meaning and appropriateness of that divisive symbol.

According to a statement posted on the Plum Borough School District’s website Friday, 3 students arrived at the district’s high school that morning wearing Confederate flag-themed clothing. This nearly a week after a lone student’s “hooded sweatshirt with confederate flag insignia” prompted a community backlash and local media interest.

But while officials with the suburban Pittsburgh district said they couldn’t stop the first student from exercising his right to free speech, on Friday they asked the 3 students who followed suit to remove the offending items. Of them, 2 refused and were sent home, while a third agreed and was allowed to stay in class.

“Public school districts cannot restrict students’ speech, except when actual, material and substantial interference with school operation occurs,” superintendent Timothy Glasspool said in an open letter to parents.

“This attire is beginning to cause a disruption to the normal school routine,” he said, adding, “We have already received in excess of 50 negative reactions to the wearing of the Confederate Flag.”

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Maurice Freeman, who is African American, told TribLive.com that he pulled his daughter out of class Friday “after she called and said she was scared because a number of students wore clothing adorned with Confederate flags.” Freeman’s daughter said there were more than 3 students involved.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on,” Freeman told the website. “My concern is security.”

Parent Rob Williams told the Post-Gazette something similar, explaining that when he first complained to school officials about the first student’s clothing last week, he warned his daughter that doing so might prompt a backlash.

“My daughter just wants to feel safe,” he said. “This is a symbol that doesn’t generate safety and security. It’s a symbol that generates feelings of insecurity for your safety. A kid shouldn’t have to go to a school in that environment.”

Meanwhile, school officials said they’re planning an investigation to determine “whether the wearing of a specific symbol constitutes harassment directed against one or more individual students because of a student’s race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.”

The Confederate flag itself has been the subject of renewed debate in the U.S. in recent years. This was particularly true after the killings of 9 African Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina church by a gunman who came to epitomize what critics call the hate and oppression built into that symbol. The gunman, 22-year-old Dylan Roof, is currently on trial and could face the death penalty if jurors decide to impose it.

In the aftermath of his Charleston massacre, the state of South Carolina removed the flag from its Capitol grounds, while a slew of similar removals followed under mounting public pressure.

The flag’s presence has also sparked debates about its symbolism and history at county fairs, sporting events and now high schools.

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After students at a Bloomington, Indiana, high school came to class last month wearing the flags as capes, the school’s principal banned them, saying the flag had created “a disruptive, divisive environment on campus.”

Critics of the decision pointed to a 1969 Supreme Court ruling extending free speech rights to all public school students. But schools maintain the right to impede on free speech under the law if it proves disruptive to learning environments, the decision held.

At Plum High School, superintendent Glasspool believes the Confederate flag has proven such a distraction, writing in an open letter to parents on Friday that “a student’s clothing can affect the academic focus and safety of our student population.”

Glasspool goes on to ask that parents discuss with their children how these symbols can cause “fear or anxiety in others,” adding “The practice of ethnic, religious, racial or gender charged symbols that profess hatred, bigotry, or oppression has no place in any learning institution and will not be tolerated in Plum schools.”

But Glasspool knows the debate isn’t likely to stop there.

“This isn’t the end of this,” Glasspool acknowledged to TribLive.com. “I have a feeling that parents of the students who were sent home will feel like their child’s rights were violated.”

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(c)2016 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

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