Christiansburg High School in Christiansburg, Virginia, is missing 23 students from classes. Following a peaceful demonstration on Thursday, all of the students were reportedly suspended for wearing Confederate flag apparel in protest of a policy that prohibited it.
The Confederate flag shirts fall under a rule that bans clothing that could “reflect adversely on persons due to race,” The Washington Post reported. About 8 percent of the school’s 1,100 students are black and more than 80 percent are white.
Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Brenda Drake explained that Confederate flag clothing has been banned at the high school since 2002 after racially-motivated fights broke out among students. Some of the brawls were tied to students wearing Confederate symbols.
“It was an entire school year of significant racial tension,” she told The Washington Post. “I think certainly we value First Amendment rights, but we have to maintain an orderly and safe environment for all students.”
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In 2015, students were barred from putting Confederate symbols on their cars, WSLS reported.
Junior Zach Comer was one of the students involved in the rally.
“We’re not trying to go into school and raise Cain or anything,” Comer told The Washington Post. “We’re doing it to raise a point that the flag is not racist. Everyone else can wear whatever shirts they want but we’re not. We just said ‘It’s time to put a stop to it.'”
Claire Gastanaga with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia explained that the school needs to balance the right to free speech with a safe school.
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“The question that they have to decide is whether the expression or the symbol will cause what is called quote a substantial disruption at the school, and they have to be able to reasonably forecast that substantial disruption,” she told WSLS.
The students reportedly said they plan to wear the Confederate flag apparel on Friday as well.