Monday, January 19, 2009

3 Marysville-Pilchuck students suspended over Confederate flag displays

3 Marysville-Pilchuck students suspended over Confederate flag displays

MARYSVILLE -- A long-running dispute over the Confederate flag and its display on the campus of Marysville-Pilchuck High School erupted again after years of relative calm.

Three students in recent months have been suspended for displaying the flag, an action that has been against school rules since 2004. That's when African-American students protested the public display of Confederate flags by white students.

The atmosphere then was tense and students barely escaped violence, said Ray Houser, executive director of teaching and learning for the Marysville School District. That's why school officials took quick action in October when they noticed Confederate flags on three vehicles parked in the student lot. The flag was painted on the hood of at least one of those vehicles. The students and their parents were called to a meeting to figure out what to do.

"We gave them a choice," Houser said. "They needed to either remove the flag or park off-campus."

The students were cooperative, and the school held special assemblies to remind everyone why it was against school rules to display the flag.

A month later, one of those three students brought a Confederate flag to school, Houser said. Two other students who were not involved in the October incident grabbed the flag. One slid behind the driver's seat in a pickup truck and drove around the parking lot. The other student sat in the truck bed and waved the flag, Houser said.

"These students chose to display it even though we had educated the student body on it," Houser said.

Both students were suspended for 10 days.

A week ago, one student who was involved in the October meeting arrived at school in a truck with a Confederate flag design on its front, Houser said. When school officials noticed it, the student also was suspended for 10 days.

After the latest suspension, a group of students appeared on Seattle television news report, arguing the Confederate flag isn't a sign of racism, but a symbol of rural culture.

A federal court in West Virginia ruled in 2005 that high school officials there violated students' First Amendment rights when they banned T-shirts displaying the Confederate flag. A student involved in the lawsuit was represented by an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU officials could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Student safety is more important than free speech in this case, said Don Hatch, a Tulalip tribal member and longtime board member of the Marysville School District. Tulalip tribal children are the largest minority represented in the Marysville School District.

If school officials hadn't taken action when they did, the situation could have escalated and easily turned violent, he said.

"Racism is a big issue in this area," he said. "We've got a lot of different cultures in our school system, and if we don't deal with this, we'll have some problems."

The Marysville School District's ban on displays of the Confederate flag came months after teenagers burned a cross in the front yard of an African-American pastor in Arlington in 2004. Arguments between African-American students and white students at Marysville- Pilchuck High School came after students painted the Confederate flag on school property.

When the flag is displayed, tensions rise and violence is possible between students who argue over the flag's meaning, Houser said.

Kids with Confederate flags on their vehicles are probably copying "The Dukes of Hazzard," said Clyde Moslander, a custom car artist and owner of Moslander's Rod and Custom in Monroe.

"A lot of kids probably saw on TV that Dodge Charger with the Confederate flag on the roof," he said. "It's probably a takeoff off that."

Moslander said he would never paint a swastika on a vehicle for a customer, but he wouldn't hesitate if someone asked him to paint a Confederate flag.

"It's no big deal," he said.

Andy Hugel, owner of DreamWerks, an auto detailing shop in Snohomish, said Confederate flags on trucks and cars is a sad throwback to 1950s hot-rod culture.

He said he begrudgingly painted the flag on a car for one customer in California several years ago.

"That paint lasted about a month," he said. "It got keyed, it got paintballs thrown at it. People were really upset when they saw it."

Now, Hugel refuses everyone who asks him to paint the design.

"My feeling is that these people should just grow up," he said. "It's like having a gun hanging in your back window. It's immature, and even a little scary."

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or