CHRISTIANSBURG — A high school parking lot became one the newest battlefields in the debate over public displays of the Confederate flag Thursday morning.
About two dozen Christiansburg High school students were suspended for violating their school’s dress code in a defiant rally in support of the rebel flag. The students had gathered in the parking lot with the flag draped over their shoulders and Confederate emblems on their clothing.
“We’re not doing this to cause trouble,” said Zach Comer, a junior at the high school, who was wearing a Confederate T-shirt and belt buckle. “We’re doing this to raise awareness.”
It’s awareness of a school parking policy that prevents students from putting Confederate symbols on their vehicles.
Christiansburg High’s ban falls under Rule No. 11 of the school’s Automobile Policy and Contract, which states, “Vehicles must be free from displaying any flags or symbols that are deemed offensive to any race, religion, ethnic group, or sexual orientation.”
Most of the students were suspended for violating the dress code when they decided to wear clothing with Confederate emblems to school, according to a news release from Montgomery County Schools spokeswoman Brenda Drake. Two students were also suspended in the parking lot, accused of threatening Christiansburg administrators and their fellow students.
Drake said those two students cursed and said they would harm others physically – though they did not threaten a specific ethnic group of students.
In the past, Drake said the flag has been at the center of racial disagreements at the school.
“We value our students’ First Amendment rights, but we must maintain an orderly and safe environment for all students,” Drake said in the statement. “Incidents of racial tension at CHS support the continued prohibition of the Confederate flag in the building.”
The 2001-02 school year saw multiple racially-charged fights break out at the school. During some of those fights, the Confederate flag was used to intimidate minority students, she said.
Since then, Montgomery County school staff have undergone special social justice and diversity training to prevent racial episodes. However, there have still been other racial incidents at Christiansburg High.
Christiansburg town spokeswoman Becky Wilburn said town police officers were at the rally, but did not have contact with any protestors.
When school released for the day on Thursday afternoon, there were no more incidents.
School board member Joe Ivers said he stands behind the school administration’s decision to suspend the students Thursday and also supports its policy that bans the Confederate symbol from vehicles.
“This episode was a disruption to Christiansburg High School’s educational process and [school principal Kevin] Siers did the right thing,” Ivers wrote in an email.
According to Ivers, the school is in line with state policy by preventing distractions in the learning environment because of the divisive nature of the flag.
“Personally, my experiences with the Confederate Flag have been (hateful), mean spirited and racially motivated,” Ivers wrote. “And I can’t ignore my experiences. ”
To the suspended students, the Confederate flag is a symbol of their southern heritage and displaying it is their first amendment right, several of them said. But to Montgomery County Schools, it’s a distracting symbol that can cause problems in the classroom.
Comer said the students gathered in the school parking lot to pray and display their Confederate flags in protest of the parking policy. School administrators approached them and asked if they would continue to wear clothes with Confederate flags in school.
When the students said yes, Comer said, they were gathered up and brought into the cafeteria because the in-school suspension room “couldn’t hold all of us,” he said.
Inside the cafeteria the students, who had gathered together, were told to move to separate tables but they refused.
“We stood together in the parking lot and we’re standing together in the school,” Comer said.
Some of the suspended students said they were given slips for out -of-school suspension. Students planned to spend the day as a group, they said.
“We’re going to have fun for the day,” suspended sophomore Danielle Broce said.
Broce said the group didn’t really have any other choice. She said she had asked for makeup work from her classes, but was told she wouldn’t receive it.
Among four Montgomery County public high schools, only Christiansburg’s parking contract includes language banning the rebel flag. Each Christiansburg student and a parent must sign the contract and pay $10 for parking privileges at the school.
The administration for each school in the county sets its own parking guidelines. Christiansburg High added the parking rule this year to be uniform with the school’s long-standing dress code and lockers policy, Drake has said.
School dress code bars students from wearing articles, “that reflect adversely on persons due to race (such as clothing with Confederate flag symbols), gender, creed, national origin, physical abilities, emotional abilities, or intellectual abilities.” “Signs, decals or stickers” are prohibited from placement on lockers.
About half of secondary schools in the county ban Confederate flags in their dress codes, according to Drake.
On the first day of school last month, three Christiansburg High students were called to the office and told they needed to take off Confederate symbols from their cars following a parking lot sweep, Drake has said.
Two of those students — previously interviewed by The Roanoke Times — contend they were also threatened with suspension for their Confederate flag bumper stickers.
However, Drake has said the students could not be suspended for violating parking guidelines.
“We cannot suspend students for violating parking guidelines,” Drake said in a Roanoke Times story about the situation earlier this week.
On Thursday morning, the suspensions created a firestorm on social media.
Christiansburg High School was a top trending item on Facebook. A change.org petition asking Christiansburg High School to allow Confederate symbols on student vehicles had more than 1,000 signatures.
Bailey Cox, a student who was told to remove her Confederate flag bumper sticker on the first day of school, said that she had hoped for a change.
Cox said since administrators asked her to remove her Confederate flag bumper sticker, she’s been flying a flag from the back of her pickup truck while driving it to and from school and taking it down while it’s parked.
Drake said putting the flag down during school was a compromise that she hoped students would follow in the future.
“That’s very respectful of the policy that’s in place,” she said.
She said that students who continue to wear clothing with Confederate symbolism will continue to be suspended.
Student rally organizer Houston Miller said as long as the policy remained in place students would continue to protest and put Confederate flags on their cars. It doesn’t matter what the school does, Miller said; he’ll continue to take his stand.
“It’s part of our history,” Miller said. “We plan on doing this again and again until we are heard.”
Staff writer Mike Gangloff contributed to this story.