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."
Diverse Student Population
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."
Embracing 'Rebel' Culture
Thompson said the decision to bar the trio from the graduation ceremony will stick with him as he reports to Army infantry training at Fort Benning in Georgia in July. Thompson spent last summer at boot camp in Fort Knox and will likely see a tour of duty in Iraq. He criticized his principal for being uneducated on the flag's actual history and instead biased by the hate it has come to represent for some.
Kellie Rezac, a friend of the three suspended seniors, helped organize the unsuccessful protest. Rezac said her peers were the victims of a double standard.
"I 've had two Rebel flags on my truck for five months, and no one's ever said anything to me," she said.
Both Thompson and Rezac acknowledged the opinion of some that the flag is a symbol of hate, but said that there is a group of students in the class who celebrate the Confederate flag as a symbol of some stereotypically Southern lifestyles. "It's country music, we have a lot of fun, we go mudding," she said, describing "mudding" as pushing 4x4s off-road.
In popular culture, the Confederate flag has been celebrated — as a hood ornamentation on the General Lee in the television show "The Dukes of Hazzard" for example — but also used to depict racism and racist characters.
"The whole racism thing is a bandwagon idea that everyone jumped on that has very loose wheels," she said.
Diplomas Still Earned
Kaufman, the school district spokesman, said that the three students had earned their diplomas and would receive them — just without the pictures and family fanfare the students expected.
The graduation controversy is the second high-profile flap involving the Confederate flag this week. On Tuesday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Tampa, Fla., raised what they are calling the largest Confederate flag in the world — a 50-foot-by-30-foot flag that will wave from a 139-foot flagpole on a private triangle of land next to a busy Florida interstate.
The local chapter of the NAACP, some members of the Hillsborough County Commission and the Anti-Defamation League ripped the raising of the flag, which was timed to coincide with the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Florida is one of just two states that recognizes the Davis birthday as a holiday.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans went to great lengths to raise the flag legally, securing the private site and winning the construction permits. The said any sentimental appeal is unlikely to sway them.
"You're going to hear some complaints about it for sure," John Adams, commander of the organization's Florida division, told ABC News Monday. "But it's a free country as far as I know."
Motorists in nine states can pay for a license plate bearing the logo of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a design that incorporates the Confederate flag.
In 2000, lawmakers in South Carolina debated whether to strip the Confederate flag from the dome of the state capitol building in Columbia and instead feature it in a monument to Confederate veterans. Ultimately, the flag was removed, but only after a compromise that made sure the replacement flag at the monument stood at 30 feet.
The flag debate in South Carolina pinned President George W. Bush and current Republican presidential hopeful John McCain against one another in the 2000 primary campaign. Bush called it a states' rights issue, while McCain came out as an opponent of waving the flag from the capital dome.
The issue flared up again in January when Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made the same states' rights argument in South Carolina in an attempt to show a contrast with McCain in the primary there.
McCain carried South Carolina, but only by a thin margin over Huckabee.