EASTHAMPTON — An Easthampton High School student who wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school Wednesday was within his civil rights to do so, despite racial tension that has erupted at the school in recent weeks.
School officials, based on advice from attorneys, determined the sweatshirt was not disruptive to the education of other students, and therefore they could not force the student to change.
“State and federal law protects a student’s right to freedom of speech, and this includes wearing clothing with a symbol of the Confederate flag,” Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said in a Friday email to all Easthampton School District parents, staff and administrators and city officials. “The law also limits protection of freedom of speech, but to a limited extent and in limited circumstances, none of which apply to the current situation in our high school. Dress codes in student handbooks also cannot be use to deny students of freedom of speech.”
Over the past month, tension has been high regarding racism and hate at the school. In late March, a student used a racial slur in a private message that led to a physical assault in the school parking lot. Some 200 students staged a school walkout the following day to protest how the administration handles situations of harassment and racism, and the students’ punishments.
In the wake of these incidents, the School Committee received a rash of anonymous complaints from students and others with stories of harassment, intimidation, hate speech and racial prejudice at the school. Some of the complaints included a swastika written on a poster and a student allegedly waving the Confederate flag and yelling “white power.” Other school opinions
While Easthampton school officials say the Confederate sweatshirt the student wore this week is allowed on school grounds, some schools in the area say they would not tolerate the clothing choice.
Hampshire Regional High School Principal Kristen Smidy said anything that would distract or disrupt the education of students, such as clothes that are too revealing, or have drug or alcohol messages, is not allowed on school grounds.
“I feel like if it was a student was wearing a Confederate flag I would ask them to change,” Smidy said.
She said the administration tries to show a different perspective on a student’s clothing choice and how it could be seen by others.
Smidy said the school dealt with an issue about four years ago where a student wore a shirt with an image of a Confederate flag.
The administration talked to the student about how the symbol can be offensive to others and the student agreed to change, she said.
Since the usage of the flag is considered free speech, Smidy said some students have the symbol or flag on their cars. Easthampton decision
In Easthampton, officials determined that the incident this week is governed by free speech rights and not by regulations in the EHS student handbook. The handbook states that school administration may regulate student speech and assembly based upon legitimate educational needs.
It also states that personal dress that “disrupts or substantially interferes with the educational process or with another student’s ability to receive an education is prohibited.”
Clothing with promiscuous language, obscenities or material that advertises alcohol is not allowed. Gang apparel or symbolism is also not permitted.
Follansbee said she has consulted with the school department attorney, an attorney for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union who have informed her approach on the issue of a student wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school.
“Their advice to me was that the student wearing the sweatshirt does not meet the criteria of a substantial and material disruption,” Follansbee said in an email.
The issue at EHS this week came to light when Principal Kevin Burke sent an email to faculty and staff Wednesday informing them on the student’s clothing choice and said he spoke with the student, explaining the impact this could have on the student and the school.
“We cannot make him remove the sweatshirt because, by law, we have to respect our students’ civil rights,” Burke wrote. “With our current school climate we need to be on alert for the safety of all students. We are asking our staff to remain professional and neutral.”
Follansbee said the next step is to educate the students and community.
She said the mayor, police chief and EHS administrators met with attorneys from the Springfield office of the U.S. Department of Justice and developed a plan for attorneys from the office’s Civil Rights Unit to do a forum for Easthampton community members.
Follansbee also said a local attorney who does work for the ACLU has offered to organize a teach-in at the high school.
This past week, the Collaborative for Educational Services of Northampton has been conducting sessions and surveys to gather information and help create a three-year plan on transforming the school culture.
This isn’t the first time the Confederate flag has provoked dialogue in Easthampton. Last year, a resident wrote to the City Council about a neighbor flying the flag. While usage of the rebel flag is protected by the First Amendment, it prompted the Council to pass a resolution condemning discrimination.
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