CALEDONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — A student at Caledonia High School was outraged when he was told to change his shirt, which showed the Confederate battle flag, or go home Wednesday morning.
Donovan Stokes, a junior, said he was approached by the high school principal about his shirt.
“I wore everything as proper. This is just a shirt; it’s the rebel flag. It was bullying. They were bullying me to take off my shirt and I did not have to go home. They cannot send me home. That is losing my education,” said Stokes.
His mother, Jolene Stokes, said she was contacted by the school at around 8 a.m.
“The principal gave me two options and I requested a letter asking why he had to take the shirt off,” she said.
The letter stated “because of what that flag is used to symbolize by others, we feel it could contribute to a hostile environment for many of our students.”
Jolene Stokes said she does not believe the shirt would create a hostile environment and her son believes that removing the shirt infringed on his freedom of expression.
“It’s more of like a history thing and it’s just a war flag from back in the day, and I don’t think it meant anything by it,” he said.
The school district disagreed, saying it has a responsibility to create a “safe and orderly” learning environment.
“Any type of attire that might challenge that, might create disorder or disruption to the environment, we have responsibility to prohibit that attire. We love freedom of speech and we educate kids and we want them to know that they do have the right to stand up and speak their mind and share their opinions and we value that as much as anybody else. At the same time, if that is going to disrupt our educational setting, that has to come first. That climate that we create for students to learn and grow has to come first, so that’s why we have to be able to respond the way we are responding,” Caledonia Community Schools Superintendent Randy Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said it is especially important during considering the recent discussions in the nation about race and the battle flag.
“We are in a greater time of sensitivity right now for many reasons that have gone around the country, but also locally. I want all of our children to feel like this is a place that they belong, this is a place that they can learn and we’re going to protect them all and we’re going love them all,” Rodriguez said.
Donovan Stokes said he understands why people see the rebel flag as offensive.
“I can see how people could be offended by it due to the slavery thing, but that’s because of the education. We are being taught in schools that this is not right, not just. I understand how people would totally get offended by this. People want to think of this as a hate flag, but this is really a patriotic flag than anything,” he said.
However, Grand Valley State University Associate Professor of History Scott Stabler said that historically, the flag was a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights Movement and the battle flag was not the official flag of the Confederacy.
“It’s a historical myth that it symbolizes something other than the Confederacy, which was all about sustaining the idea of human bondage. I think that people that carry the Confederate flag probably in their minds believe it stands for southern heritage, white southern heritage, but I don’t think they have any clue as to what southern white heritage is,” Stabler said.
Stabler believes this situation could be an opportunity for learning.
“I think it’s a point of learning what the student doesn’t understand, what the flag might mean to people of African descent — even to white people, because it means something to me, too,” Stabler said.
Stokes ultimately decided to take the shirt off rather than go home. The flag shirt is a tank top and he was wearing another long-sleeve shirt under it.
He said a similar incident happened to him in middle school when he wore a belt showing the rebel flag. He said the student handbook does not directly state anywhere that he can’t wear that kind of attire. He said he is not a racist and was not at all trying to promote hate or racism.
He also said he thinks the shirt could spur conversation.
“We had this happen before and I think it’s really unright because it’s uneducated,” he said.
School officials also believe the shirt could have created discussion, but would have to happen in a more controlled setting.
“I think discussions can be healthy … in the right frame,” Rodriquez said. “I do think a T-shirt can create those discussions. I think sometimes the messages from our clothing can be unintentional or intentional, it just depends, but whether it’s intentional or unintentional what we still have to be aware of is the adults in the building that are creating this environment for our students.”