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Confederate T-shirts spark debate

By The Associated Press

04.15.01

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RICHMOND HILL, Ga. — Zane Dunn wore a banned T-shirt to school and became a rebel with a Confederate cause.

Like six other students at Richmond Hill Middle School, 14-year-old Zane was suspended for a day because of the Confederate flag on the shirt.

More than a century after Lee surrendered at Appomattox and a few months after defenders of Confederate symbols lost battles in the Georgia and South Carolina statehouses, the fight over Southern heritage has moved to schoolhouses.

"My Confederate ancestors, they died for this flag,'' said 14-year-old Zane, whose mother bought him the shirt after another student was suspended. "I was born and raised in the South and I have to stand up for it.'' Educators say they have banned Confederate symbols to prevent racial violence.

Parents and students from Richmond Hill, 18 miles south of Savannah, wore Confederate shirts and bandanas to a recent Bryan County school board meeting to protest the suspensions last month.

In Cairo, Ga., rebel flag-waving parents picketed their school board after 50 students at Cairo High School and Washington Middle School were told to change their Confederate shirts.

The American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved in a similar controversy in Brunswick, Ga., where the principal of Jane Macon Middle School wrote to parents saying the shirts caused ``rumors of threats and impending fights.''

Cairo High principal Wayne Tootle said the actions do not stem from political correctness but from school shootings that have taught administrators to be wary of anything that might lead to violence.

"School folks are in a very precarious situation,'' Tootle said. "If they don't do something to try to prevent, and something happens, then the parents and news media will just lambast them for what they didn't do.''

In recent years, children wearing Confederate symbols, even as backpack patches, have been punished in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.

In Georgia, the controversies followed the Legislature's move in January to change the state flag, which had been dominated by the Confederate emblem since 1956.

School officials said bans on Confederate emblems have been in place for years, but the flag fight prompted students and parents to violate them deliberately.

"Adults who want to keep arguing need to do something other than use our youngsters as a pawn in some political game,'' said Gary Russell, superintendent of the Bryan County school system.

A lawyer representing parents in Richmond Hill and Cairo said the change in the Georgia flag had emboldened school officials.

"The flag came down and they said, 'Oh, boy! It's open season on Confederate flags,''' said Kirk Lyons of the Southern Legal Resource Center, whose clients have included a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and the head of a North Carolina NAACP chapter.

The classroom clashes have been a boon for Dewey Barber and his T-shirt company, Odum-based Dixie Outfitters, which has more than 200 shirt designs that incorporate the Confederate flag.

"When they tell them they can't wear the rebel flag, they say, 'By gosh, we have the right of free speech and to our heritage!' And they buy more,'' Barber said.

Dixie Outfitters shirts are so popular that some schools have banned them by brand name. Zane and his six fellow students all wore Dixie Outfitters shirts. Zane's shirt depicted a snarling, wild boar, with the Confederate emblem as a backdrop.

Another Dixie Outfitters design shows just the flag's corners peeking from a basket of sleeping puppies. A third shirt depicts slaves working in a cotton field beneath the words "The Land of Cotton.''

No lawsuits have been filed in Georgia, but the state chapter of the ACLU has sent letters urging schools to lift the bans. Georgia ACLU legal director Gery Weber said the bans violate students' free-speech rights unless a school can show evidence that a shirt causes classroom disruptions.

"It is hard to say a Confederate flag on a T-shirt is going to create that when, until recently, the Georgia flag had that on it and was placed in all the schools,'' he said.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected without comment the appeal of an Ohio student whose T-shirts of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson were banned from school.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had sided with the school, saying it could ban shirts that were offensive, even if they didn't cause a serious disruption. But the same appeals court last month revived a lawsuit by two Kentucky students who were suspended for wearing Hank Williams Jr. shirts with the Confederate flag. The court said the school needed to better explain its reason for the ban, such as whether there had been racial violence.

Related

Georgia school district's anti-Confederate symbol policy stands for now
ACLU, students claim ban on clothing 'that might be offensive to others' is overly broad.  07.26.01

Federal judge rules Confederate flag can fly at Maryland cemetery
Court says federal Veterans Administration regulations prohibiting flag's display violate free-speech rights.  01.30.01

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