Demonstrators prompt temporary ban on Confederate flag at Easthampton High School



Published: 05-09-2017 3:37 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Dozens of students, parents and some community members gathered outside Easthampton High School Monday morning to create a “disruption of education” in response to a student being allowed to wear a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school last week.

Now there is a temporary ban on clothing with images of the rebel flag.

“Today and tomorrow the Confederate flag is not going to be allowed in Easthampton High School,” Principal Kevin Burke said over the loudspeaker Monday. “And the School Committee will be meeting tomorrow to make further determination.”

Member Peter Gunn said the committee will discuss whether to restrict the clothing for the remainder of the school year at Tuesday’s meeting at 6 p.m. in the second-floor meeting area of the Municipal Building, 50 Payson Ave.

The committee will also provide updates on the Collaborative for Educational Services, which has conducted various sessions at the school to gather information for a three-year plan on “transforming school culture at EHS.”

On Monday, a group stood in front of the school building’s main entrance before walking to the intersection of Williston Avenue. Many wore a white T-shirt with the hashtag “#nohatehere.” Parent Noreen Nardi said the group was there to “create a disruption.”

Within the past two months, there have been two demonstrations at the school. In late March, about 200 students walked out of school to the Municipal Building to voice concerns on how the administration handles racism, hate and harassment. March’s walkout came the day after an assault in the parking lot of school where the victim had used a racial slur in a social media private message.

Senior Eamonn Graeme, 17, participated in both demonstrations. He said it’s important to the students to continue to use their voice. Graeme said he sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate.

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Sophomore Marissa Dunham, 16, and her mother, Shannon, particpated in Monday’s demonstration. Dunham said later in a message that she sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery.

“Being biracial, I feel that I need to be a part of this,” Dunham said. “I have not faced discrimination directly, but once it happens to one person it affects us all.”

School officials said last week it is within a student’s civil rights to wear a Confederate flag sweatshirt on school grounds. The decision comes at a time of heightened racial tension at the school that has provoked a citywide discussion on school authorities’ handling issues of racism and harassment.

Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said in a statement last week that she had consulted with attorneys on the matter who have informed her approach on the incident involving the sweatshirt.

“State and federal law protects a student’s right to freedom of speech, and this includes wearing clothing with a symbol of the Confederate flag,” she said.

The EHS student handbook states that clothing that “disrupts or substantially interferes with the educational process or with another student’s ability to receive an education is prohibited.”

‘Step in the right direction’

The demonstration outside the school’s doors lasted about 20 minutes. Students, parents and community members then moved into the school’s Cafe Commons for a sit-in, with the adults citing “education disruption” as the reason for their visit.

Parent Natalie Poirier said the superintendent gave students permission to miss class while they stayed in the Cafe Commons. She said students spoke to Follansbee about incidents that have happened within the past week.

Poirier said they stayed in the common area until noon Monday. When Burke made the announcement regarding the flag’s ban from inside the school, the whole room cheered.

“I think that it was definitely a step in the right direction,” Graeme said in a message. “It’s the kind of progress we’ve been wanting.”

Dunham said she feels like the protests are accomplishing things one by one.

“Everyone needs to be heard and open-minded and work together,” Dunham said. “That is when change will start happening.”

Now that there has been a clear disruption to the school’s environment and interfered with some students’ education, Sandy Davidson, attorney and law professor at the University of Missouri, said the school can now prohibit the student from wearing the sweatshirt.

Davidson cited the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case. During the 1960s, some students at the Iowa school wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, but were banned as the school feared possible disruption. The case determined that banning the armbands violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

Under the Massachusetts Student Free Expression Act, students can express views through speech and symbol, to write and publish views and to assemble on school property to express opinions. The act allows freedom of expression as long as it does not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.

The 1990s case of Pyle v. South Hadley School Committee determined that high school students in public schools have the freedom to engage in non-school-sponsored expression that may be reasonably considered vulgar, but cause no disruption or disorder.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at