ELLSWORTH — A red, white and blue flag flies in front of Ellsworth High School (EHS) on a regular basis without controversy.
That familiar flag has the 50 stars and 13 stripes of Old Glory. But when three other red, white and blue banners — in this case, Confederate battle flags — appeared on the backs of pickup trucks at the school last week, people took notice.
EHS senior Eryn Colson said she was in her English class on March 7 talking with her teacher when she noticed three trucks in the parking lot flying the Confederate flags.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, eww!’” Colson recalled this week.
The flags were flown by students at the school from the backs of their personal vehicles. Though there were three at first, the number dwindled last week and Superintendent Dan Higgins said there were none seen at the school on Monday or Tuesday of this week.
A survey of the parking lot Wednesday morning by The American did not turn up any Confederate flags.
The disappearance of the flags was due to the students’ decisions to stop flying them. While some in the community wanted the school to step in and remove the flags, or tell the students they could not return until the flags were removed, Higgins said that was not what school officials did.
He and EHS Principal Dan Clifford did meet with the students who were flying the flags and spoke with them about the situation. Other students, some on their own and some sought out by school officials, spoke with Clifford, guidance counselors and social workers. Higgins said officials also consulted with the school’s legal counsel.
“Our response is based upon respecting the rights of students to free expression and balancing that right with the safety and welfare of all our students and staff,” Higgins explained.
Colson serves as president of the Gay Straight Diversity Alliance at EHS. Of the administrators’ response that there was little they could do with regard to the flags themselves, she said it “wasn’t exactly an answer we wanted to hear.”
Nico Jenkins, a Blue Hill parent who reaches philosophy and ethics at both the University of Maine and Husson University, said last week that he found the school’s handling of the flag matter “deeply troubling.”
He said he felt officials deferred too much to the rights of the students and did not give enough consideration to “sensitivity and awareness” of the message the flags sent and the fear they could cause.
Church leaders in Ellsworth have scheduled a public forum addressing free speech and the responsibilities that come with it in the wake of the flag incident. That forum is set for Tuesday, March 21, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the First Congregational UCC in Ellsworth (behind City Hall).
“We just recognized that we live with people that have a diversity of opinions,” said the Rev. Sara Hayman, leader of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth, “and we needed to find ways to come together.”
Hayman said the motivation “is not to further belittle or create a divide,” but rather to reach a “better understanding” and to “ensure our communities are safe.”
Colson said she recognizes that some people today see the Confederate flag as either a symbol of Southern pride and heritage or, more broadly, as a symbol of being from a rural area and/or an independent, rebellious streak.
“But they don’t seem to understand the history behind it,” she said, noting that she has done research into the flag in recent months and learned that it was during the 1950s and ’60s that the flag “became widely known as a symbol of white supremacy.”
Mostly limited to memorials and similar displays in the decades following the Civil War, the flag came back into the spotlight during the Civil Rights Era as Southerners opposed to what they saw as federal (see: Northern) overreach such as government-mandated de-segregation used it as a symbol of their resentment and opposition.
Georgia, for example, made the Confederate battle flag part of its own state flag in 1956 when “the state was in a desperate situation to preserve segregation,” according to a 2000 report by the state’s Senate Research Office.
Since then, it has also gone on to be used by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist, white supremacist groups.
It has also appeared at high schools around the country. While Ellsworth may be the only place it has happened in Maine, news reports show that similar incidents have occurred in Indiana, Florida, Arizona, Alaska, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Montana in the past year alone.
Like the flags at EHS, those incidents all sparked discussions about free speech in a school setting. It is a question school officials, parents, students and courts have wrestled with for decades.
“Students and teachers in school do have the right to freedom of expression,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “That right is not as broad as it is in a public square, sidewalk or park, though.”
In Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, a 1969 case centering around students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam war, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the students.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the court wrote. It also noted, however, that school officials have authority “to prescribe and control conduct in the schools,” especially with regard to student safety and maintaining a learning environment free of distraction.
Heiden said while school officials in Ellsworth decided they would not take any action with regard to removing the flags, “many other schools across the country have reached the opposite conclusion” — and that those schools have been backed up by the courts.
“I know of no case where a school has prohibited the Confederate flag and a court then said that the school was violating the First Amendment,” he said.
Higgins said he heard from close to 10 people in the past week, either by phone or email, who wanted to speak about the issue. Some just wanted to know what the school was doing about the situation, others wanted officials to take stronger steps and still others voiced their support for the students’ rights to express themselves.
Wednesday morning, Higgins said school officials are looking at using this incident as an opportunity “to educate our student body about the issues” of free speech and expression.
Heiden said that is something the ACLU supports, using “moments of controversy or controversial views as a teaching moment.”