Student-led effort leads to banning of Confederate flag in Indiana high school

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By Sabrina Holcomb, original image above courtesy Edward Stojakovic (modified)

Tensions came to a head at Indiana’s Bloomington High School North when students showed solidarity with fellow students by wearing rainbow colors to school on LGBT Spirit Day. Not to be outdone, some of their classmates showed up the next day draped in Confederate flags.

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It wasn’t the first time the Confederate symbol had been displayed by their classmates, but it was the last straw for many students said members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a student-run club that aims to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.

GSA members took issue with drawing a false equivalency between the Rainbow flag and the Confederate flag, pointing out that one is a symbol of support and inclusion and the other represents a long history of racial violence and oppression.

“The Confederate flag was hanging behind people as they were lynched,” explains Gaia Hendrix-Petry, a student and GSA ally. “It was hanging behind those who were enslaved. It is a direct symbol of oppression and to bring that symbol of hatred into our school is unacceptable,” says Gaia, who observed students being harassed and called the “F” slur on the day of the incident.

greg-chaffin-anti-rfra-rally-at-the-indiana-statehouse
Greg Chaffin

“Students have been feeling unsafe the last two months in general and this added to it,” confides GSA student president Emma Cannon. “It felt like a message was being sent to LGBT students and students of color that their existence is not tolerated.”

“I couldn’t even eat lunch,” shares student activist Caleb Poer. “It made me sick to my stomach, that kind of thing going on around here. It’s not just me. It’s the collective feeling of everyone.”

Navigating the situation had become a balancing act for administrators, who cited the complexity of trying to juggle free speech with students’ need for a safe school environment.

“That’s why we need to have conversations about the difference between free speech and hate speech,” advocates Greg Chaffin, a school counselor and GSA advisor.

When Chaffin told the distressed students who packed into his office they had options, the students took charge, calling parents and news agencies, shooting a live video on the spot, and posting Facebook messages calling for supporters to meet them at the superintendent’s office.

Chaffin was among the group of students and educators who attended the meeting, noting that “the students were so well versed on the subject it blew people away. They were incredibly eloquent, passionate, and logically sequential,” notes the former AP Honors English teacher with pride. “They were a force to be reckoned with.”

The meeting lasted several hours, but 15 minutes after it ended, the superintendent’s staff had drafted a policy that banned the display of Confederate flags on the school campus and at school-related events.

Caleb, who attended the meeting and helped lead the charge, has received threats and attacks on social media. Yet, he still holds out hope and is participating in facilitated meetings with some of the students who wore the flag.

“We just need to hold strong,” he declares. “We’re trying to put our differences aside and work together towards a more unified school, and education and nonviolence are the key to that unity.”

“We’re making strides,” agrees Gaia, who calls the experience profound. “It empowered our student body and taught us that we have a voice in our education. I think sometimes we forget we have the power to do something about the things that need changing.”

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