HARRISBURG – As it has elsewhere in the country, the debate over a student’s right to display the Confederate flag at school versus district policy to prevent disruption to its education reached Harrisburg last week when an 18-year-old high school student refused to turn his T-shirt inside out and was sent home.
It is a debate centered over the controversy around the flag itself and what it stands for, and one that led some parents to remove their children from the school Monday over fears of what turned out to be false rumors regarding weapons at the school.
Trenton Byrd maintains he stands behind the battle flag as a proud symbol of the South and its heritage, nothing more. His stance, nor his belief in the flag’s meaning, has anything to do with racism, hatred or violence, he said.
“We just want to be able to support our flag, our heritage and our freedoms as Americans to fly a flag, wear a flag and support it wherever we want to,” Byrd said Tuesday. Byrd and other students who carry the flag on their vehicles are also required to park off school property and have found sympathetic homeowners less than a block away.
He says he has worn clothing with the flag going back to the eighth grade and throughout high school without complaint, including by those students and a teacher who brought their concerns to administrators on Thursday.
It was those complaints that led administrators to deem the T-shirt a distraction to education within the school as defined by district policy, Superintendent Michael Gauch said.
“There were several phone calls to the high school office and there were students that came in who were visibly shaken and said they were scared to be in the building,” Gauch said. “They felt the reason this was being displayed was for ulterior motives.”
In the next days, about 30 more students followed Byrd’s footsteps, but most chose to change their clothing rather than be sent home. Those that did not and were sent home, including Byrd, were given excused absences with no disciplinary action, Gauch said.
Tuesday, the superintendent said, was quiet, though police maintained a presence around the school’s exterior perimeter as opposed to the day before when officials attempted to alleviate parents’ fears by assuring them the rumors, including the school being locked down, were false, Gauch said. There was also a greater police presence, including inside the building.
Monday morning also welcomed students with the hoisting of a Confederate flag on the school’s flagpole below the American flag.
Harrisburg Police Chief James “Whipper” Johnson said incidents related to the conflict including dozens of students rallying around the flag Saturday night in Harrisburg have been limited to false accusations against proponents or opponents from possessing weapons to the school closing.
Johnson, at Byrd’s and other students’ request Tuesday during a lunch break, searched their vehicles and found no weapons.
“Obviously these guys have no concern about escalation or they wouldn’t offer to have their vehicles searched. These guys are pretty transparent with law enforcement and are definitely cooperating with us,” Johnson said. “I’ve got no issue with them. I don’t know who the other side might be.”
James W. Dismuke, an African-American parent of a 16-year-old girl at the high school, believes the flag conflict will simmer down, but he does not believe reasons given for support of the flag. Though some students may have worn clothing with it in the past, the group is growing following the decision to remove the flag from the South Carolina Capitol in July, adding to his concerns.
He pointed to Facebook posts on Byrd’s and others’ pages, including a page called Southern Illinois Heritage Not Hate. When attempting to access the page Tuesday night, Facebook indicated an error and to try again later.
Dismuke nonetheless forwarded some of the posts. One, that Byrd shared, was a photo of silver beer cans with white cones over their tops situated around a brown bottle hanging from what appears to be a thin rope. The original post was put up five years ago. Byrd shared it on Aug. 19.
Dismuke says the flag only represents hatred and hopes those who claim pride in the South find another way to express it.
“The only heritage I know that flag represents is a heritage of oppression and slavery, racism and death,” he said.
Byrd, asked about the photo, replied that it was first posted years ago and that he was not being racist by sharing it. He says he has friends who are black who support him, including one African-American person who spoke at the rally.
“We have no racial intentions. We’ve got black friends in the school. They all are OK with it. I talked with (one friend) the first day before I got sent home and asked if this shirt offends him. He was like, ‘no, no problem with it, I know you’re not a racist,’” Byrd said.
Byrd was asked Tuesday to have those friends – some he named – contact The Southern Illinoisan but none did.
Meanwhile, Byrd said he plans to address the school board at its Sept. 22 meeting to state his case for displaying the flag on school property. Another rally is planned for Saturday and work is underway to organize a parade.