A senior week "prank" that involved flying the Confederate flag in a public high school parking lot left three Minnesota students banned from walking with their fellow graduates at a commencement ceremony Wednesday night.
Seniors Dan Fredlin and Justin Thompson, both 18, and Joey Snyder, 17, were suspended and restricted from the diploma ceremony after arriving at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn., Tuesday with the flags affixed to their cars. One of the teens had a flag hoisted on a 20-foot flagpole attached to his truck.
School district officials say the students were "carrying and waving" the Confederate flags when they arrived at their last day of school, a violation of the school's code of conduct.
The school's principal, Ron Simmons, who is black, made the decision to suspend the trio and ban them from the commencement, a decision school district officials affirmed.
"What is not acceptable is driving through the parking lot and waving the Confederate flag for the purpose of inciting a response," Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for the Bloomington Public School district, told ABC News.
Kaufman cited a pair of state laws to justify the discipline decision, including the students' willful disruption of the rights of others to an education and their endangerment of students and school property.
Kaufman also noted the school system's interpretation of the controversial symbolism surrounding the flag as a reason it violated the school's policies.
"We believe flying the Confederate flag on campus may violate district rules against discrimination," Kaufman wrote in an explanation of the decision. "We believe — and have communicated with students — that the Confederate flag represents hatred, bigotry, intolerance, slavery, civil rights issues and discrimination," Kaufman wrote.
The flag has long been a lightning rod for controversy between people who believe it is a relic representing a time when slavery was accepted practice in the United States and others who believe it represents a time of rebellion against the government and a lasting symbol of the soldiers who fought for that cause.
In an interview with ABC News, Thompson, was also reprimanded last year for brandishing a flag on his truck at Kennedy, said racism had nothing to do with the decision to fly the flag again on the last day of high school. To them, he said, it was more of an anti-authoritarian taunt.
"We look at it as kind of like a rebel thing," he said. "Anyone who knows us knows we're the farthest thing from racists."
The John F. Kennedy High School has an enrollment of 1,738 students — 39 percent of whom are of color.
Citing that diversity, Kaufman reiterated the school district's position Thursday. "At one time, the Confederate flag was seen as a symbol of pride," he acknowledged. "But it's been sullied by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, much like the Nazi symbol was exploited by the S.S. That used to by a Hindu symbol of peace and love."
About 100 seniors, including black students, gathered Wednesday to protest the decision, chanting "Let them walk!" and wearing T-shirts that read the same in an appeal for class camaraderie.
The school, which had at least one other disciplinary incident involving a student with a Confederate flag this year, according to Kaufman, was unmoved. "We don't play the game of just 'because it's graduation …'" he said. "We have to be consistent."