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South student: Let us wear, display Confederate flag

J. H. Osborne • Updated Aug 22, 2017 at 8:59 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Should students at Sullivan South High School — known as the Rebels since the school opened in 1980 — be allowed to wear and/or display a Confederate battle flag, commonly called “the rebel flag,” on school property?

With the start of the new school year and the first football game of the season for South, it’s an old controversy arisen anew.

South junior Darla Cusson spoke to the Sullivan County Commission on Monday to protest what she described as a taking of students’ First Amendment rights by county school system policy that she said bans students from wearing the flag’s design on clothing. Cusson indicated to the Times-News that there was a meeting during which students were told “we couldn’t have the flag on our car and we couldn’t be wearing it at school.” Cusson said that edict was prompted because of the tradition of students parading along Moreland Drive from Fort Henry Drive to the school prior to sporting events. Cusson said some students have recently been found in violation of the dress code.

According to the Sullivan County Schools website, Cusson is a member of the high school’s Southern Belles varsity dance team.

The Times-News later asked Director of Sullivan County Schools Evelyn Rafalowski if there had been a recent change in policy regarding the flag.

Rafalowski said policies regarding the flag have been in place for several years but that last week — as the anticipation of the first football game of the season grew — several students had challenged the policies. Some wore clothing featuring the flag, while a couple of others left rebel flags standing in the beds of their trucks in the school’s parking lot. Rafalowski said the school system’s policy requires such flags to be placed out of view in the vehicle once it is parked on school property.

“Many at the school believe that you should be allowed to have it and/or wear it,” Cusson told commissioners. “I realize that some disagree.”

Not being allowed to wear and show the rebel flag challenges students’ ability to express themselves, Cusson said.

“We don’t express ourselves verbally as high school students,” Cusson said. “We express ourselves through what we wear and how we act.”

Cusson said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling nearly 50 years ago said students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression” upon entering school property.

Rafalowski said there have been subsequent court rulings that support school systems enforcement of dress codes that prohibit wearing clothing that could be disruptive or cause safety concerns.

“Second of all, the Confederate flag has never been a problem until this year,” Cusson said. “People should not be getting offended over history. Yes, we did have slavery. It wasn’t very acceptable. However, it happened. But we can’t go back and change it. But students aren’t even supporting slavery or anything about it that has made the flag seem like a bad thing. The students wear it to show where we come from. We come from the South. And that is what the flag is now representing. On the other hand, some people do find it offensive and that is was an atrocious point in time.However, if we chose to ban everything that was found offensive ... we wouldn’t have much. Like, I’m not homophobic or anything, but some people don’t approve of gays. So if we decided to ban gay rights, we wouldn’t have rainbows or anything like that. So in final analysis, should we be banning anything? We have our freedom of speech, which even the Supreme Court said we have back in 1969. Plus, it’s just becoming an issue, even though we are just expressing where we come from. Also, you are banning one group of people’s expression over another just because people are offended by it. So in the end, taking away our rights is illegal, and you shouldn’t be taking away what we have in the first place.”

Rafalowski said controversy over the  rebel flag, and even South’s Confederate general mascot, are not, as Cusson said, just now an issue — citing the system’s settlement years ago of a federal discrimination lawsuit at Sullivan East High School. A part of that settlement, Rafalowski said, the system addressed “moving away from” the rebel flag at Sullivan South. Several years ago South students had input on designing a new school flag and the school system distributed 1,700 of them, Rafalowski said — and a rebel flag mural and image of the rebel general were painted over in the school’s gym.

According to images on the school’s page on the school’s system’s website, the general is still used on its logo.

Rafalowski also pointed out the Sullivan South campus is also home to an elementary school and security and safety of the whole complex is foremost in the system’s priorities.

Among details within the school system’s dress code for high school (found in the student handbook):

* Clothing advertising drugs, alcohol, tobacco or any illegal substance will not be allowed. Clothing with suggestive, profane, vulgar, violent, immoral, obscene gestures or language will not be allowed. Clothing that displays hate messages will not be allowed.

* Accessories must not disrupt the educational process or draw undue attention to the individual.

* Dress code applies to all activities and functions unless otherwise noted by the school administration.

* A main purpose of the dress code and the discipline policies is to prepare students to participate in the community and the workplace and to teach students appropriate standards of dress for the community and the workplace. The administration reserves the right to determine if any clothing or accessory worn by our students is a safety issue or is disruptive to the educational process. Every possible situation cannot be addressed in this policy; therefore, the administration reserves the right to make amendments deemed necessary for the welfare of the school. The administration has the discretion to approve exceptions to the dress code when necessary or appropriate.

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