Parents, residents defend controversial American flag display at high school

With controversy still raging over a display at York High School that featured an American flag placed on the library floor, some parents and residents are voicing support for both the display and the educators who created it.

The Elmhurst school this week held a daylong interdisciplinary forum for sophomores about First Amendment rights. One of the displays was a re-creation of artist Dread Scott's 1989 exhibit, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”

The original exhibit, which invited people to walk on the flag, was criticized by then-President George H.W. Bush, who called it disgraceful.

The re-creation in York's library featured a flag spread on the floor — although in this case a barrier prevented people from stepping on it.

When students posted images of the display online, there was immediate outrage on social media with some calling the re-creation disgusting, disgraceful and disrespectful.

Since then, York parent Laura Hamilton said, angry residents and outsiders have been “bombarding the high school with their vitriolic calls.”

In response, she said, some Elmhurst parents contributed more than $1,200 to deliver pizzas, snacks and words of encouragement Friday to the school “for these weary teachers and staff at York to show our support.”

“We all feel terrible that they are under attack,” Hamilton said. “We want the school district to see the community support — not just hear the negative.”

A district spokeswoman earlier this week said the educators who organized the forum sought to create an authentic learning opportunity for students. She said there was never any intention to upset people or be disrespectful.

District officials declined further comment on Friday.

The display was up for just one school day on Tuesday. That afternoon, two students folded the flag and gave it to a representative from the Elmhurst American Legion so it could be retired respectfully.

On Wednesday, the district issued a statement apologizing for what happened.

York parent Caryn Rivadeneira says she believes district officials should have “held their ground” because nothing was wrong with the display.

“I'm grateful for what the teachers and administrators did here,” said Rivadeneira, whose son is a sophomore. “It gave our kids a very up close and personal experience with these issues. It wasn't just something that they read about in a book. It wasn't just theoretical.”

According to parents, other topics touched on during the forum included the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case, which centered on a high school principal in Juneau, Alaska, who suspended a senior in 2002 after he unfurled a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Rivadeneira said the forum resulted in students having “wonderful conversations” in the classroom. She said they expressed their beliefs — even when they disagreed with one another.

“I felt like this was a really important lesson,” she said. “It was a creative exercise.”

Dave Noble, a 1986 graduate of York, said he had no problem with the flag display because “it was a great way to teach a lesson.”

The Elmhurst resident said he believes the controversy about the display was heightened because of the nation's current political climate.

“It surprises me that people feel so strongly about this on both sides,” Noble said. “I'm not sure the reaction would have been the same if it happened two years ago.”

American flag display sparks controversy at York High School

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