Sunday, May 31, 2020

Tomah school board bans Confederate displays

The sign of the rebel south is no longer allowed on Tomah school district grounds.

At a meeting Monday night the Tomah School Board approved unanimously to prohibit displays of the Confederate flag on school property. The decision came at the monthly board academy meeting. It was noted generally there is no time set aside for public comment during board academy meetings. But board president Brian Hennessey noted the significance of the issue justified public feedback.

The issue carried over from the January board meeting when it was discussed Confederate flag displays became a disruption in THS.

At that time the board opted to delay a decision until the board academy meeting Monday night or its regular board meeting later this month. What was noted as a 'few students' have been wearing clothing that display the Confederate flag. It was noted in January several years ago the Confederate flag was at the center of controversy when some students opted to fly the flag in the back of pickup trucks. Policy was written to prohibit that practice

Attendance was meager Monday night. Those at the meeting who requested were allowed to address the board before the vote. Aside from district staff and board members, three people asked to speak, THS student Brett Larkin, Tomah resident John Pleuss and Stephanie Begay, a member of the district Indian Education Committee.

Pleuss was point blank in his opposition of the ban when he asked, "what's the problem with the confederate flag?"

Pleuss asked how many people voiced concern over the Confederate flag on display at the high school.

District superintendent Cindy Zahrte said, "the number is irrelevant. If it was only one that is all we need (for the ban)."

Pleuss feels the board's position sets a poor precedent.

"There are people who have a problem with the American flag," Pleuss said. "If only one person (opposed) can decide whether kids can have displays, what's going to happen is some people are going to lose their civil rights."

THS principal Robert Joyce assured Pleuss student distractions are legitimate.

"I have dealt with it," Joyce said, adding, "we want Tomah to be a school with discourse.

Joyce conceded his interaction with the small representation of students and their parents who opposed the ban gave him pause. Joyce was raised in Florida and still has family in states that in some cases still confront conflicts over white supremacy.

"What I heard from students and parents (supporting Confederate displays) was disheartening with their reasons why they should be allowed," Joyce said.

Zahrte said students perceived the Confederate display as a threat. That concern is creating a hurdle for a safe learning environment for students.

That is the foremost goal of the board's decision, said board member Jerry Fushianes.

"Anything that challenges the learning environment is not good," Fushianes said. "As a parent with a child in the school we need to look at that...As a school board it is essential to create the best possible learning environment. If (the display) is a distraction to learning we have to address it."

Fushianes stressed their action is not meant as a political statement for the community. Something Zahrte echoed.

"We are not banning the confederate flag from the community," Zahrte said. "Just from school grounds."

Larkin repeated his concern first aired at the January board meeting.

"If you do this because only one person is offended we are heading down a very slippery slope," Larkin said. "It's a very complicated issue and there needs to be more dialogue (rather than a ban)."

Begay assured it's not one lone student concerned with the Confederate display.

"It's more than one student," said Begay, a member of the Indian Education Committee.

The IEC sent a letter to the district expressing concern over public perception of the district if displays were allowed.

"We needed to be proactive rather than wait for something to happen," Begay said, noting the still fresh memory of backlash for Baraboo and its school over a group of students displaying a Nazi salute which went viral.

"We don't want to wait until Tomah is in the news," Begay said. "I don't want us to be there. We need to take a stand."

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