OPINION: Ridgeview’s Confederate Flag Suspension Debate

There’s been yet another overreaction within the education system.

A group of seven students at a Round Rock middle school – Ridgeview Middle School – have been suspended after a photo of them waving a Confederate flag was found on one of the student’s phones. Seems fairly clear that these boys were members of some kind of hate group or that they supported slavery, right? After all, the Confederate flag is rather heavily associated with slavery and bigotry.

But apparently, not everyone knows what the “Stainless Banner” is so commonly associated with. According to Andy Birdwell, the father of 14-year-old Andrew Birdwell, his son took the photo of the Confederate flag simply because he “just really liked the colors”.

And yet, despite supposedly not knowing the meaning of the Confederate flag, or even that the flag they were holding was the Confederate flag, Andrew and his friends have been suspended as if they had full knowledge of their actions and willingly presented themselves with the flag to identify themselves with historical and modern bigots.

The issues I have with this course of action are twofold: How the photo was found, and, much more importantly, what was done after the photo was found.

Firstly, the photo was found after an assistant principal went “searching through a student’s phone”. However, it isn’t stated under what circumstances that the student’s phone was searched. The school district said that the related incidents that occurred earlier this month have been hidden to protect student privacy, and that they would not divulge any details on those incidents. This basically means we can only speculate over what might have led to the search — we don’t have a clear picture of what warranted such a search, if anything Did the students have any history of intolerance or cyberbullying that might lead to searching the phones? The district’s attempt to protect these students from further scrutiny under the callous eye of the common person is admirable, but it forces the public to draw their own conclusions based entirely on assumptions or imagination – and those conclusions tend to be not-so-good.

Secondly, while the district has kept prior incidents private in an attempt to protect the students from the public’s judgement, the school’s own treatment of these students – namely the suspension – seems overly severe. Andy himself has found it rather odd that his son has received several homework assignments regarding and displaying the Confederate flag, while Andrew is unable to hold one. One of the big problems I have with the school’s suspension of these students is that they didn’t know what the flag represented at the time. Being punished so harshly for an action that one still doesn’t fully understand does not sound like the sort of thing that would make me respect authority. Although the Confederate flag is, to some, an embarrassing or even outright shameful symbol of American history, it is still a symbol of American history — and a very important portion of American history at that. Instead of simply being forbidden from attending school for a few days, where they would be learning about such sensitive times in American history, these students should have been told what the flag meant and informed that it was a sensitive subject. In fact, it’s more possible they did know and simply didn’t care, in which case there’s not a whole lot that the school can do — it’s up to the .

Instead, these kids are punished for committing a travesty that they might not even understand. That’s not exactly the kind of thing that convinces students they should respect the — or parents, for that matter.

In fact, this whole incident raises the question of why the students hadn’t yet been taught what the Confederate flag was. I, for one, remember at least knowing about the American Civil War and what the flags of the two combatants were by the time I was in middle school. I don’t know what this school in particular was teaching or what their take on the curriculum was, but given the fact that at least one of the students didn’t even know what the Confederate flag was or what it meant, I’d say that the school may not have done the best job teaching these students. Either way, these students didn’t know what they were doing was wrong, and yet they’ve been punished as if they were acting in defiance or willful ignorance, rather than a lacking education.

Today’s society can be surprisingly touchy when it comes to issues as serious as race or shameful historical events, yet incidents like Andrew’s suspension show that society isn’t just capable of being over-sensitive or over-active, but that it hasn’t yet gotten to actually teaching people what is or isn’t acceptable. The school failed to educate these students about the meaning and history of the Confederate flag, while still punishing them as if the students had known full well what the flag meant and intended to send a message of hate to others, which is, as the father’s quote suggests, not the case here.

To make matters more complex, it might not even be the school genuinely at fault for this decision. Had the students been punished less harshly, there would have been a crowd of people who would have asked for a harsher punishment. I myself might have even been a part of that group. No matter what the school did, they’d probably be criticized in some fashion, and thus they decided to take the lesser of two evils in at least taking some action.

And, best of all, this is all assuming Andrew is telling the truth about why he posed with the flag. It’s an entire possibility that this student’s lying, or that the other students knew full well what they were doing. For one, the claim that Andrew liked the colors becomes comically suspect considering that the colors of the “Stainless Banner” (Red, White, and Blue) are the exact same colors present on the “Stars and Stripes” (Red, White, and Blue). One can argue about how some colors are more prominent than others when the two flags are compared, but all in all, this justification for not only photographing but posing with the flags is flimsier than plastic food wrap.

All in all, whether these students genuinely didn’t know the possible interpretation of their photo or if they were society’s oversensitivity has painted targets on either the students or the school, depending on who’s asked. It’s the responsibility of the students to learn about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, but it’s the responsibility of the community to allow them to learn without lashing out at them overly harshly.