Crossing the line? Rebel flag decision affects personal property

by KIM HILSENBECK

In what appeared to be another night of difficult discussion, the Hays CISD Board of Trustees voted 5-2 Monday to ban the display of the Confederate, or Rebel, flag from all personal student property, including vehicles.

The issue of allowing students to wear the Rebel flag on personal property has been the subject of debate for the past several months, seemingly spring-boarded from an incident in May where two freshmen boys wrote racial epithets and urinated on a black teacher’s door at Hays High School. They also caused more than $3,000 in damages from a vandalism spree both inside and outside the school. The students did not display the Confederate flag or use it in any way.

Those students, one white, one Hispanic, served time at the district’s alternative disciplinary campus – the Impact Center. The teacher, who had turned in her letter of resignation a few months earlier, sped up her departure date.

Marty Kanetzky and Shaun Bosar gave the two dissenting votes from the dais at Monday’s meeting. Kanetzky had concerns about violating students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression, as well as how school administrators would implement and enforce the rules.

“The education of children should be most important. The enforcement of the wearing or displaying of the flag did distract from learning,” Kanetzky said, referring to incidents where Hays High students were taken out of classes to remove Rebel flag stickers from their personal vehicles.

Bosar said he wants consistency in how the policy is enforced.

Both seemed to grapple with their decision, as did several other board members. At the heart of the argument is whether or not a school board has the right to revoke the display of symbols on personal property. In particular, several board members questioned the district’s power to include banning the display of stickers on personal vehicles.

Community member Jeff Reeves spoke to the board during the open forum section of the meeting.

“At the last meeting we were subjected to an absolutely shameful presentation by Mr. (Willie) Tenorio on the KKK and its use of the Confederate flag,” Reeves said, referring to Tenorio, the Hays CISD board president, asking the district secretary to “Google” KKK at the October board meeting so the audience could see the results.

Reeves noted the overwhelming use of the United States flag throughout the Klan’s website and other sites about white supremacy.

He said the Rebel flag has been banned from the school’s property but the debate is now about something different.

“At issue tonight is individual students’ rights to quietly and peacefully display images of the flag on their clothing and personal property, including vehicles. The Confederate flag might certainly be offensive to some but it hardly qualifies as obscene, vulgar or lewd. Though perhaps unpopular, display of the Confederate flag is precisely the type of speech that the Supreme Court protects,” Reeves said.

“Which among you would be so willing to give up your rights guaranteed by the Constitution as you are to take them from the students of this district?” he asked.

The ensuing board discussion lasted more than an hour and included several emotional moments.

Vice-president Meredith Keller asked her fellow board members whether they had the right to tell students what they could and could not put on a car. She said she had no problem with telling students they could no longer wear the Rebel flag on personal clothing or accessories while at school or school functions.

Keller said, “I think it’s important that we protect the sanctity of the classroom. I do not feel like that about a sticker on Mrs. Holmes’ son’s truck a half-mile away from the classroom. I feel strongly about the classroom and the educational environment and how kids feel in the classroom. And I feel distracted from the classroom.”

Keller was referring to Cyndie Holmes, a local community member with ancestors dating back to the Civil War, who spoke to the board earlier in the evening in favor of allowing students to display the Rebel flag on personal property. She said her son was pulled out of an AP chemistry class to remove a Rebel sticker from his truck in the parking lot.

Robert Limon, a relatively new board member, said, “I don’t believe [the flag]belongs in the classroom, I don’t believe in belongs in the hallways, it doesn’t belong on school property, and it shouldn’t be displayed at school functions.”

He later said, “I, too, would like to focus on the classroom and test scores and graduation rates and that possible shortfall in revenue next year. Until we take definitive action on this issue, it’s never going to go away.”

Kanetzky reiterated her statement from last month that she took an oath as a school board member to uphold the constitutional rights of students as part of the deal.

Holly Smith Raymond, one of the newest members, and Tenorio both graduates of Hays High, indicated they appreciate Rebel pride but believe the symbolism of the Confederate flag no longer is an appropriate image to represent the school.

Smith Raymond on Monday said, “I know that Rebel pride never dies. I’m still proud to be a Rebel.”

She and her husband moved back to the area so her children could attend Hays CISD schools.

During the meeting, Smith Raymond alluded to a potential lawsuit over the Rebel flag.

“I am saddened by what appears to be a lose-lose situation for the children and our community. Through a variety of communications that we’ve had, there is a high likelihood that regardless of the decision made by the board, it’s expected that those who oppose it will sue [the district]. And it places this issue’s fate in the hands of a judge who’s likely never set foot in this community,” she said.

In a follow-up conversation, Raymond said members of the community told her that if the board voted to ban the flag from personal property, there is a group that will sue the district.

“It could be an idle threat,” Raymond said. “But that is our right as Americans to stand up for our beliefs.”

Hays CISD spokesperson Tim Savoy said no litigation has been filed against the district and there are no threats of litigation to date.

After the vote, Holmes, whose son attends Hays High, said she understands it was a difficult decision for the board.

“I agree we need to focus on other things,” she said. “But I’m concerned about how we deem what’s offensive to others.”

Holmes said she asked her children, who are or were involved in sports at the school, about any negative reaction from other schools. She said they had never experienced any reaction from other teams.

“I think this is an issue that’s outside the school,” she said.

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