Tensions High at California High School Following Flag Flap

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Published May 07, 2010

| FoxNews.com

Tensions are rising at a California high school where five students were sent home for wearing American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo.

Morgan Hill Police Department Cmdr. Joe Sampson said two officers were stationed at Live Oak High School school midday Friday to give a "visual presence" in order to thwart any potential acts of violence.

"We want to give them peace of mind should they need us," Sampson told Fox News.

Sampson confirmed that no arrests were made during a walkout at the school on Thursday.

School district officials are scheduled to hold a press conference Friday afternoon, a day after more than 200 Hispanic students reportedly skipped class on Thursday and marched to school district headquarters while chanting "we want respect" and "si se puede" -- "yes we can," the Morgan Hill Times reported.

"We did this to support the Latino/Hispanic community," Francine Roa, a 2005 Live Oak High School graduate, told the newspaper. 

At least six Morgan Hill police vehicles traveled alongside the students, many of whom carried Mexican flags.

Police have been told to be on alert for gang-related retaliation against the boys, according to Ken Jones, whose stepson, Daniel Galli, was one of the students who refused to turn their T-shirts inside-out when asked by a vice principal on Wednesday. 

"We just want this whole thing to die down," Jones told FoxNews.com. "We're not trying to keep these flames firing."

The five teens -- Galli, Austin Carvalho, Matt Dariano, Dominic Maciel and Clayton Howard -- were sitting at a table outside Live Oak High School Wednesday morning when Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez asked two of them to remove their American flag bandannas, one of the boys' parents told FoxNews.com. The youths complied, but were asked to accompany Rodriguez to the principal's office.

The students were then told they must turn their T-shirts inside-out or be sent home, though it would not be considered a suspension. Rodriguez told the students he did not want any fights to break out between Mexican-American students celebrating their heritage and those wearing American flags, the parent said.

But Jones said the preemptive action was unnecessary, and that Rodriguez "overstepped his bounds."

"The issue was, there was nothing going on," Jones told Fox News on Friday. "There was no sense of violence at all amongst the students, there was no conversation, there was no bullying. 

"We just feel like the vice principal overstepped his bounds. He jumped in too quickly. We can understand he might be concerned something would happen, but there was no indication that was going to happen at all."

Officials at the high school, a 1,300-student institution in Santa Clara County, near San Jose, have not returned several messages seeking comment.

As of late Thursday, Jones said the five boys' parents have no plans to sue the school or Morgan Hill Unified School District, which has characterized the incident as "extremely unfortunate" and is conducting an ongoing investigation. Several attorneys have contacted the families offering to represent them pro bono, Jones said.

"We're keeping an open mind," he said. "We want to stand up for our First Amendment rights."

He said the families are seeking an apology from school officials and want the students' unexcused absences for leaving school to be expunged. 

Galli said he frequently wears the American flag T-shirt to school and that he wasn't trying to incite any tension. Asked if he wore the shirt to make a statement related to the ongoing immigration debate, Galli said, "No, it had absolutely nothing to do with that."

District officials, meanwhile, sent a voicemail message in English and Spanish to all parents late Thursday.

"The Morgan Hill Unified School District does not prohibit nor do we discourage wearing patriotic clothing," the message from Superintendent Wesley Smith said. "The incident on May 5 at Live Oak High School is extremely unfortunate. While campus safety is our primary concern and administrators made decisions yesterday in an attempt to ensure campus safety, students should not, and will not, be disciplined for wearing patriotic clothing. This situation and our response are under review."

Asked if the district will be taking any steps to quell rising tensions at the school, a district official told FoxNews.com in an e-mail, "Our focus for [Thursday] was student safety. Students are safe and administrators are continuing to work through the investigation."

Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, said the students are protected under California Education Code 48950, which prohibits schools from enforcing a rule subjecting a high school student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that, when engaged outside of campus, is protected by the First Amendment.

If the school could point to previous incidents sparked by students who wore garments with American flags, they could argue that the flag is likely to lead to "substantial disruption," Volokh said.

"If, for example, there had been fights over similar things at past events, if there had been specific threats made. But if [school officials] just say, 'Well, we think it might be offensive to people,' that's generally speaking not enough."

Volokh said the students and their parents likely have a winning case on their hands if they decide to take the matter to court.

"Oh yes, it's almost open and shut," he said.

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http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/05/07/tensions-high-california-high-school-following-flag-flap/