Kansas school grapples with debate over Confederate flag

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At a high school named Free State to honor Kansas' anti-slavery past, the Confederate Flag waved off the back of a student's pickup truck in the parking lot. When classmates who were offended removed it, the student replaced it and displayed the flag again.

It's sparked debate about race and discussions of free speech at Free State High, an overwhelmingly white school of 1,700 students in the university city of Lawrence that was founded by settlers opposed to slavery.

Administrators relented to complaints last month and barred the flag, labeling it a disruption. The district says the student won't be disciplined, and that the situation is being used as a learning moment. But that's not sufficient for some students, who are trying to persuade the school board to expand the prohibition.

"It's kind of at the point where we have to start doing things on our own to see the change," said junior Seamus Ryan, one of four students leading a petition drive calling for such flags to be forbidden on all district property. He and the other petition organizers — another white student and two black students — have gathered hundreds of signatures.

The debate comes as Confederate symbols across the country face increasing scrutiny since last June's shooting deaths of nine black congregants at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. The white suspect, who has pleaded not guilty, had posed in photos with the Confederate flag.

The Free State students pressing for the wider ban had a closed-to-the-public meeting Wednesday of the school's "Can We Talk Club," a group focusing on matters of race, which was devoted to the topic with guest speakers.

Administrators at the school aren't publicly discussing the issue, and point to Superintendent Rick Doll's statement that it is being channeled into a learning opportunity. The student whose flag launched the debate did not respond to an Associated Press interview request. Members of the school board, which next meets on Monday, did not respond to messages.

Among the student body, which is 7 percent black, opinions are diverse.

"I understand in other places that (the Confederate flag) is culture, but it's not an example of Kansas culture," said Harrison Miller, a white 15-year-old sophomore who recalled being "kind of dumbfounded that someone would bring that kind of thing to school."

But at Free State, he added, "I don't think that it's a racism issue. I just think it was a kid trying to get attention, and I think it's disrespectful."

Breanna Wray, a junior, said Wednesday she believed the dustup was a free speech matter but "it's honestly being blown out of proportion."

"There is history behind it (the flag), but it's also a history used in racist terms," said Wray, who is black. "I'm not particularly offended — just kind of angry it was used in that way."

"No matter what you say, it could be offensive to some and OK with others," she said. "It's just kinda how life is."

Free State alumna Nadia Imafidon, who is black, spoke at Wednesday's student gathering. She supports the push to ban the Confederate flag districtwide, calling it "a horrifying symbol" often associated with white supremacists.

"The Confederate flag was used to symbolize a system in which slavery is OK. That's something we decided, at least should have, isn't OK," said Imafidon. "For black people to see it, they're reminded of lynchings and sheer terror. To see the flag, it's almost like people don't want you to feel safe, and there's no reason to display it now."

Ryan's group plans to present the petitions to the school board in the coming weeks.