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Confederate flag and gun rights taunt causes furor at University High School

Picture of University High School

Even as a man gunned down kids in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, a University High School student in Normal had parked a truck in the school lot close to Main Street and with a female friend displayed a large Confederate flag. On the flag were images of assault rifles and the words "Come and Take It."

The timeline indicates the student prepared the flag for the truck before the shootings in Texas happened. But the juxtaposition of the flag incident and the Texas shooting in which 19 children and two adults died has heightened reaction among students and parents.

The display did not go down well with other students. One took down the flag. Several reported it. In-school social messaging platforms blew up. The Black Student Union at the high school issued a statement condemning the act as an "obscenity."

“These transgressions are not new. There have been many events of different discrimination, throughout the past school year. Students have come to us as well as the administration about being called slurs, as well as other racist experiences, and all that administration has done is give these bigots a 'talking to,' while other issues like wearing crop tops faced bigger consequences,” according to the statement.

A photo of the truck parked at University High School in Normal this week.

17-year-old Ethan Wright said he is the student who cut down the flag and tossed it in a dumpster. Wright said he was later offered a choice by the administration — pay restitution or take detention. Wright said after some thought he chose restitution so the parents of the student who displayed the flag would not seek class A misdemeanor charges against him. He said he understands and endorses the restitution, although he questions whether displaying that particular flag should be protected under the First Amendment.

“I think the Confederate battle flag is a statement of hate. This particular flag was also problematic because it had weapons on it," said Wright. “It was something used by the Confederacy, but is something also used by white supremacist groups, and the connotation of that symbol is certainly something that is very racist and disgusting."

An African American student at U-High said it is far from the first incident of the year, and she had gone to the administration multiple times with complaints. 16-year old Karianna Merriweather said she believes the perpetrators intend such things as a provocation.

“I just think it's certain individuals who feed off each other. In the beginning of the year, it happened to be just a couple of kids. Now at the end of the year it's a lot of them, but they don't share similarities. They're not friends, they're not a family or a group. They're just openly racist,” said Merriweather.

Another school parent who is biracial said her children were very upset by the incident and she wonders about their future.

“I know what life was like for my brother and my dad. It's scary to know that the world hasn't changed as much as we had hoped it has," said the parent, Joanna Nicolas. “Every time that kids are allowed, every time that adults are allowed to continue with that type of rhetoric or opinion, it just emboldens them more.”

U-High Principal Andrea Markert said she talked with a group of about 20 kids and numerous adults that day who told her they did not feel safe.

"There's no quick easy answer to any of this. This is a long process. I think they at least felt heard and they did continue on with their day in school," said Markert.

Markert sent a message to parents and students describing the incident in broad terms. That proved inadequate for some who viewed it as lacking enough information.

“My concerns were they didn't explain the situation and the severity of it, especially given what happened in Uvalde,” said parent Marcos Mendez. “In talking with other parents, seeing that was extremely upsetting. We don't know what the consequences are for this and an explanation of what occurred would have been beneficial.”

17-year old Ethan Wright had gone public with his involvement in removing the flag, but the disposition of the disciplinary process concerning the children who put up the symbol and reportedly laughed at the reaction of other students led to concerns of imbalance. Markert said she is limited in what she can say.

"A lot of it is due to a lack of specific information (in the message to parents) that I cannot give out to protect minors," said Markert. "Families were involved. And I can say that we acted swiftly and took care of it immediately.”

Ethan Wright is not willing to let Markert entirely off the hook. He said she could have given more detail about the incident and still protected the identities of the kids involved. Wright said he was encouraged by Markert’s public assertion the flag was a "disruption to the learning environment."

Parent Marcos Mendez said he’s pleased Markert and other administrators will meet with parents and some students again next week, even though school has ended for the year. Mendez said, though, he believes the issue is broader than one school and it will take sustained action to change the course of society.

“Especially with all the things that happened, we can't just shrug these things off any more. We have to talk about them. if we don't talk about them they get swept under the rug and nothing ever happens, said Mendez.

Principal Markert agreed.

"The bottom line for us is the safety of our children in the schools. They deserve an environment that's free from intimidating and threatening words, images, and actions," said Markert.

16-year old Karianna Merriweather is less optimistic that such measures can produce a change of heart in those who displayed the flag.

“What I say to them, it honestly probably means nothing. But I will keep saying it and saying it and saying it until my voice is heard,” said Meriweather.

Markert said U-High was already beefing up post-pandemic diversity education efforts and training to prevent aggressions and making plans for a diversity day next school year. She said they will advance those plans.

Ethan Wright said he believes the response of most students at the school was a healthy rejection of the values the flag entails.

“U-High was very against it. I think we still have a very progressive student body in general. And I think there was a unified condemnation of this, which is really positive,” said Wright.

The Black Student Union was less sanguine.

“We no longer feel safe at U-High. It’s going to take a long time to recover from this. There is so much more work to be done to the U-High student body and education than empty promises of restorative circles and so-called ‘diversity,’” according to the statement.

U-High is a school of choice that is designed as a lab school for Illinois State University education majors. Space is highly sought after each year by parent of students leaving eighth grade. Karianna Merriweather said such incidents could affect the reputation of the school and make it less attractive to prospective students.

The parents of the student who put up the flag have not responded to a WGLT request for comment as of Thursday evening.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.