Confederate Flag in Middle School Classroom Raises Alarm in Clinton
On March 17, an image showing a Confederate battle flag hanging in a Jared Eliot Middle School classroom appeared on social media without context. The subsequent backlash and its response have offered a glimpse into the ways Black students and other students of color can feel disregarded within the Clinton community, and how the schools hope to effect future change.
On the morning of March 17, Caitlin Turner, a college student from Clinton, received a text message from a friend that showed a photo taken through the window of a classroom at the Jared Eliot Middle School where a Confederate battle flag could be seen hanging. Turner shared the image on her personal social media pages; in turn the image was shared in the Facebook group Clinton BLM, a page for Clinton’s citizens to discuss social issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The post attracted significant attention, with most commenters appearing to be young people from Clinton and expressing shock and anger that the flag, considered by many to be a racist symbol, was displayed.
Déja Fleury, a Morgan School graduate who went through the Clinton school system, said she felt old, familiar feelings well up when she saw Turner’s Facebook post.
“I was disgusted and angry when I saw the flag being displayed in an Eliot classroom. Seeing the flag anywhere makes me uneasy and uncomfortable, never mind seeing it in my old middle school. Being mixed Black and White I experienced a lot of racism and discrimination from both students and teachers when I moved to Clinton,” Fleury told the Harbor News.
Superintendent of Schools Maryann O’Donnell spoke with the Harbor News and corrected some of the misinformation that was posted on social media about the incident. O’Donnell said the flag was in a 7th grade classroom and was hung along with a Union flag as the class worked on a curriculum covering the Civil War. The flag was removed after people complained to the schools.
While the Confederate battle flag, which has a blue X on a red background, was used by some Southern troops in the Civil War, it was never adopted as an official Confederate government or military symbol. It was adopted by some factions, in the 1940s, to indicate personal and political resistance to civil rights and segregation. It was later adopted by some Southern states as an official flag, as well as by the Ku Klux Klan when it tried to intimidate Black people. More recently, it has been used by White supremacists and is seen by many as a symbol of hate.
O’Donnell declined to identify the teacher responsible for hanging the flag. O’Donnell also declined to publicly discuss further specifics of the event, including any conversations between herself and staff members, students, or parents, or to say if the teacher involved had been disciplined. O’Donnell said the district is committed to continually learning and adapting polices to better serve the community.
Fleury met with O’Donnell on March 18 and said the meeting went well and she was hopeful for positive changes to come from the meeting.
Some who spoke to the Harbor News about the issue felt a lesson on the Civil War was appropriate context for the flag to be displayed. One instructor in the district who wished to remain anonymous said that showing the flag could have some academic merit.
The teacher had no direct involvement or knowledge about the flag incident and told the Harbor News, “Obviously we’re not promoting or endorsing the Confederacy in any way shape or form, but it’s hard to teach the Civil War without showing the flag.
“How are you going to say what it was like without showing the stars and bars and explaining what it stood for and why people resent it? It may not have the same effect as a picture they come across on their own,” the teacher continued.
The “stars and bars” flag was at one point adopted by the Confederacy as an official flag. The stars and bars has a design similar to the United States flag; its design was deemed confusing while in battle, leading to the development of the battle flag. It was a battle flag displayed in the Clinton classroom.
Fleury said even if it was for educational purposes, that does not change the issue at hand, which is that hanging the Confederate battle flag in a classroom is stressful for students of color.
“I know what it’s like to be the only, or one of very few students of color sitting in a predominantly White classroom while being taught about slavery. During these lessons, we’re constantly stared at, questioned, and singled out to give our opinions on racism. As unnerving as it already is to have to sit through that, I can’t imagine doing it while staring at a Confederate flag—a flag that represents exploitation, violence, murder, dehumanization, and all the cruel, unthinkable acts that were committed toward Black people [and] which the Confederacy fought to defend. We are not human in the face of the Confederate flag. How could a history teacher not realize this?” Fleury asked.
“I’m sure that teacher could conceptualize that it’d be wrong to display a photo of lynchings on the walls, right? Same concept—the flag is that and more,” she continued.
Fleury also stated that as White supremacy groups currently openly display the flag as a symbol of their beliefs, it should have dawned on the teacher to not include the flag as a classroom prop. She says a picture of it on a slideshow, for example, would have sufficed. Fleury contended that the display of the flag puts the onus on minority students to have to continually explain these feelings to their peers.
Racism in Clinton
An additional problem created by the display of the flag, according to Fleury, is that it can send a message to White students that the attitudes represented by the flag are acceptable, which can then manifest in terrible consequences down the road. Both Fleury and Turner, also a person of color, said they have been subject to racist comments in Clinton, and both feared displays of the flag could reinforce its power as a symbol of hatred.
“As a teacher, it is your duty to make all students feel comfortable, respected, heard, and understood. Hanging this flag does entirely the opposite for students of color, while encouraging White students to think this is okay. That’s why when I was in high school, kids felt comfortable coming to school wearing Confederate flag shirts and saying the n-word, with no regard for the students of color around them,” said Fleury.
“[A]s a person of color, I can tell you that it’s very uncomfortable to grow up as a minority in Clinton, Connecticut,” Turner said. “This incident of clear racism is not an isolated event. At Morgan, I have heard on multiple occasions of individuals saying the n-word left and right in the hallways. Yes, we are a majority White population, but that does not excuse the ignorance and uneducated comments BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] are incessantly faced with on the daily.”
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Marco Famiglietti told the Harbor News that the district takes instance of slurs extremely seriously.
“There are school-based consequences for students who use racial slurs or homophobic slurs,” Famiglietti said.
Students are punished with suspensions and then paired with a counselor when returned to school to discuss what happened and why in efforts to reform the behavior. Further instances are met with further punishment.
‘Unheard’ and ‘Dismissed’
After seeing the post, some wanted to spread news of the incident to various Clinton establishments to make their concerns known, and the initial responses were disappointing to those who reached out.
Fleury said she contacted the Eliot front office where she said she felt her feelings were dismissed.
“I initially spoke with the main office secretary, who cut me off multiple times and dismissed my concerns to answer another call. I got a call back from the principal, Mrs. Tucker, who had a similar response. She spoke over me and tried to defend the teacher’s actions by claiming it being just a part of a lesson,” said Fleury.
Eliot Principal Linda Tucker did not return messages from the Harbor News seeking comment on the incident.
It wasn’t just the school district’s response that left some people angry. All Things Clinton is a community Facebook page with 5,000 members. Jordyn Prevost said she wanted to share Turner’s post in the group to raise community awareness on the issue, but her post was never approved. Another share by Turner was also denied.
“I think the post wasn’t approved because it makes the school look bad. I was annoyed that it wasn’t shared because the Facebook group is honestly just so biased,” said Prevost.
Turner argued it was another example of townspeople routinely sweeping uncomfortable observations under the rug to “create the façade of unity.”
Many people use the group as a main local news source and members have more than once claimed that the posts in there are unfiltered and open to anyone. Leah Saunders, the administrator for the group, said she denied both posts from being published because she thought the discussion should be kept between those concerned and the school and thought, perhaps, context was missing.
“Two people sent in requests about it and I denied both. It was a picture of a flag from the parking lot. There was zero context and merely posted to cause drama. If they want to know what it’s about, they should reach out to the school and inquire. Not post on [Facebook] to cause trouble and drama when it could and most likely is a part of a history lesson,” Saunders said via text.
Saunders elaborated that she thought the flag could be used a useful teaching aid.
“Personally, I also believe that you learn from the past, so you don’t continue to make the same mistakes in the future. Teaching history is about the past. We don’t have to like or agree with it, but we can’t erase it. Trying to erase history is disrespectful to the people who lived through it,” said Saunders.
The District Response
On March 18, Fleury attended a meeting with O’Donnell to discuss the display of the flag. Fleury was interested in talking about ways that the school can more appropriately educate the community on racial and social justice issues.
“After this meeting, I hope there will be real systemic change happening in Clinton, and I will continue to work with the superintendent and anyone else I need to in order to see it happen. Students and faculty need to understand the difference between ‘not being racist’ and ‘being anti-racist,’ so these practices can be effectively implemented into the curriculum. I hope the school system chooses to commit to this change,” Fleury said.
Fleury defined anti-racist as being active in working against racist polices or action and calling out such actions so they can be dismantled, while “not being racist” is a passive stance taken by someone content with not taking action.
O’Donnell and Famiglietti met with the Harbor News on March 19 to share more details on the work they have done to address racial and social justice concerns, much of which has occurred behind the scenes over the last several years.
Famiglietti said state mandated changes to the curriculum to include an African and Latino studies offering will go into effect in the 2023 school year as the state further develops the course. However, he said the schools are also working to incorporate “non-dominant voices” into other courses. For example, in a sports and American culture class, topics like pay gaps for Black athletes, a lack of minority coaches, and transgender athletes are all addressed.
“It’s something the kids do see in the classroom,” Famiglietti said.
Furthermore, O’Donnell said both she and Famiglietti have taken steps over the last year to better educate themselves. O’Donnell is part of a group of superintendents that learns about and discusses equity and racism and how to improve the districts in those arenas. The district has also stepped up its recruitment efforts to find minority applicants for positions that will become available in the schools by attending job fairs geared toward that purpose.
O’Donnell said the district does actively partake in these discussions, does reflect on new issues, and then commits to doing better.
“It’s a lens we have been starting to look through and I don’t think we’d been talking about previously,” O’Donnell said, stressing that many changes take time to fully implement.
O’Donnell said that she is proud that Clinton’s students are passionate about societal issues, particularly in the high school as they prepare to enter the real world and be difference makers.
The district leaders also say they will continue to adjust the curriculum and make changes as needed.
“The only way you combat prejudice and racism to address it, reflect it, and attack it, not being complacent,” said Famiglietti
“We are still learning and growing, we are committed to this,” said O’Donnell.
Turner said she hopes that the discussion and awareness over the flag displays and surrounding incident can bring people to more acutely consider their actions.
“I just hope that this experience will leave people more open-minded and accepting to listen to BIPOC when we voice our concerns to the community. We have been pushed down too many times and for what? We are people, too,” she said. “It is also not our place to educate the public about harmful and degrading symbols or phrases; I wonder just how many times this flag was walked by without any thoughts to the history it holds. Please do better, Clinton.”