RICHMOND, Va. Students and parents across Virginia are protesting school board policies that prevent children from wearing clothes depicting the Confederate flag to school.
More than 80 students recently wore Confederate flag T-shirts to a Campbell County high school to protest the principal's decision a day earlier to force some students wearing the shirts to change. Fifteen of the students were suspended.
On April 7, the mother of a high school student in Richmond County asked the school board to revise a policy that prohibits her daughter from wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt to school to celebrate her ancestry.
Brag Bowling, Virginia division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said these types of protests are growing because schools have unclear policies when it comes to clothing that makes a political or social statement.
"It's open season on Confederate heritage right now," he said. "There are a lot of ill-informed administrators taking out their own personal prejudices on kids that aren't causing any trouble and are just proud of their heritage."
The Campbell County protest arose after about 40 students at Brookville High School wore Confederate flag T-shirts one day in late March, which Principal Jim Whorley feared would make black students uneasy. About 10% of the school's 900 students are minorities.
A rumor spread through the school that officials were going to ban the shirts, which are normally permitted. The next day, at least 80 students wore Confederate flag shirts to protest the decision, Whorley said.
Sophomore Jerrica Wilhelm told The News & Advance of Lynchburg that the flag was not intended to spark racial tension.
"We're representing our heritage," she said. "It was a big deal when it didn't need to be."
Whorley told the students to turn the shirts inside-out or face disciplinary action. He said the Confederate emblem violated the school's ban on clothing that causes a disruption in the classroom.
"I didn't have any students complain to me, but we had a few little flare-ups, and the day was surely going to become a problem in my estimation," Whorley said.
About 15 students refused and were suspended for the rest of the day. Earlier in the month, a sixth-grade student in nearby Rustburg also had been suspended for bringing a hat to school that bore a National Rifle Association logo and a Confederate flag pin.
On April 7, Stacy De Armon appeared before the Richmond County School Board to protest that district's policy against Confederate flag shirts in schools. She said her daughter, Angel, a senior at Rappahannock High School, was told she would be suspended if she wore the shirt to school.
"This is my heritage," she said, adding that her great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier. "I, along with my children and everyone's else children, deserve to know where they came from and be proud of where they came from."
Richmond County Superintendent Robert Luttrell said on April 8 that the school board listened to De Armon's case, but the dress code would not change.
"We try to apply our dress regulation as fairly and consistently as possible," he said. "We've got to provide an environment in school that is conducive to learning."
Kent Willis, head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said school officials are treading on a fine line when they try to ban certain articles of clothing. He said the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Dist that forms the basis of many schools' dress codes only allows schools to control student expression if it's disruptive to the educational process.
"What the school cannot do is anticipate that something is going to be disruptive," Willis said.
In December, a federal appeals court barred a Virginia school district from enforcing a dress code that prohibits students from wearing clothing that depicts images of weapons. The National Rifle Association had challenged Albemarle County schools on behalf of a 13-year-old middle school student who was ordered to turn his NRA T-shirt inside-out because administrators feared it could encourage violence.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school's dress code was too broad and was likely to be found unconstitutional.