Chardon superintendent clarifies policy on politics after banning thin blue line flag

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CHARDON, Ohio (WJW)– When the Chardon High School football team opened the season on Friday night, one of the Hilltoppers carried a thin blue line American flag onto the field.

After posters on social media complained about the display, Chardon Local Schools investigated and concluded carrying the flag was not racist as some had claimed. Instead, it determined it was show of support for police and one of the Chardon coaches, who is a police officer.

In a letter to the Chardon community, the superintendent also wrote that the carrying of the flag could be interpreted as political speech, that is not permitted on school grounds and would not be allowed in the future.

“The perceived connection between political activity and a potential school-sponsored event, obviously the football team is directed by coaches, coaches are employees of the school district,” Dr. Michael Hanlon Jr. said.

Many Chardon residents said the display of the flag was also a reflection of the bond between Chardon students and Chardon police. It was forged in February 2012, when officers were among those who rushed to Chardon High School after a teenage gunman killed three students and wounded three others.

“I agree with the players wholeheartedly. We support our police 100 percent and I definitely disagree with banning that flag,” Bill Manning said.

“We certainly recognize and value that relationship that we have with our first responders, nobody can deny the importance of that,” Hanlon said.

Some Geauga County residents said if the district is banning the thin blue line American flag, it must ban other flags that are viewed as political.

“It makes sense as long as they’re consistent in their stance, you know. Would they also say you can’t fly a Black Lives Matter flag, or any other political flag, can you fly the rainbow flag, can you fly the Christian flag? As long as you’re consistent and say in your school district, we’re only flying the American flag or not, then I think it’s fair,” Kyle Boone said.

In response, the superintendent said the district will apply the same standard to all other flags or symbols.

“Any of those, I think based on the feedback that we have received, it’s clear that people perceive those as a political issue and as a result that constitutes political activity on school grounds as well,” Hanlon said.

On Tuesday, Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri called for Hanlon’s resignation. In a letter to the superintendent, Commissioner Spidalieri wrote, “Words cannot explain the anger, frustration and disappointment that I felt reading your letter to community members,” and “You have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you do not carry the compassion, understanding and leadership quality that is required in your position.”

Dr. Hanlon declined comment on the call for his resignation, but on Tuesday afternoon, he posted the following statement about the flag controversy:

“Over the past several months, expressions of support for both local law enforcement and racial justice have increasingly become a part of our community’s, and the nation’s, public discourse. it is through this lens that we are viewing the current discussion happening in the Chardon community following the football game last Friday night.

“As you are aware, as part of the pre-game ceremony, some of our student athletes made the decision to carry a ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag onto the field. because the football team is supervised by employees of Chardon Schools, immediate concerns arose that the decision to carry the ‘Thin Blue Line flag’ was school-sanctioned or that employees were engaging in political activity on school grounds. Chardon Local School District’s policy does not permit engagement in political activity of any kind – in our classrooms, at our events or on the field.

After having several conversations with the head coach as well as members of our Board of Education, and having reviewed the numerous emails and messages I received regarding the event, two things were clear.

“First, the student athletes involved intended only to support local law enforcement and did not intend to make a racially or politically charged statement. Second, some members of our community perceived the display of the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag as political and as a racially-charged statement. 

As a result, the School District made the decision to fairly and consistently apply its policy concerning political activity and prevent further displays that could be construed as political speech. For example, when it came to my attention that one of our teachers displayed a ‘Black Lives Matter’ backdrop in a virtual classroom, I directed the teacher to remove the display in accordance with district policy. 

“As a district, our first obligation is to educate students. we encourage respect and appreciation for law enforcement, particularly in light of the prompt response and bravery shown by Chardon Police and other first responders on February 27, 2012 at Chardon High School. However, we also have a responsibility to understand the racial disparities that have led to the current civil unrest. The district takes this responsibility very seriously and strives to do so in an objective and unbiased manner.”

The Chardon Board of Education released the following statement Tuesday evening:

Chardon Local School District values and respects the police and all first responders. Our relationship with our local officers is stronger than most, given their fast response and the bravery they demonstrated on February 27, 2012 and in the aftermath of that tragedy.
We greatly value our partnership with local law enforcement and first responders. We agree with
Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus’ statement that the Thin Blue Line flag is perceived differently by
different people. For some, it has political meaning.
The Chardon Board of Education would like to make it clear that we are in full support of Dr. Hanlon’s and the Administration’s decision regarding the football team’s display of the Thin Blue Line flag on the field at last week’s football game. Because it was displayed as part of a pre-game ceremony under the supervision of school staff, it was construed as sanctioned by the school district. Political activity by staff members is not allowable under Board of Education policy.
Our support for Dr. Hanlon and the District policy prohibiting political speech by staff members does
not diminish the District’s support and appreciation for police and all first responders.
We understand that the team’s intent was simply to support our community first responders. We also understand that this action evoked immediate concerns from some members of our local community.
The Chardon Board of Education respects and values all points of view and has a responsibility to
create a safe and inclusive environment for all students. The Administration’s decision regarding this
event, and the directive to have a teacher remove a “Black Lives Matter” backdrop from the virtual
classroom, are both in keeping with district policy.
Dr. Hanlon and our administrators have been working tirelessly all summer to make sure our students and staff are able to come back safely to school. There was considerable concern that our athletes would not even be able to play at all, but they are playing and we are doing everything we can to make this school year successful. It is our hope that the community will understand both our obligation to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students and our dedication to handling this situation in keeping with school policy. Thank you for your understanding of this sensitive issue
.”

Chief of Police Scott Niehus posted the following statement on Facebook:

Last Friday night, in a show of support for one of their coaches who also serves as a police officer, and in recognition of first responders throughout our community, the Hilltopper football team carried a thin blue line flag onto the football field with them. Our officers appreciated the show of support demonstrated by the players, as this has been an incredibly difficult and challenging time for many law enforcement officers across the country.In Chardon, we have enjoyed a special relationship with our schools that extends back to 1947, during the earliest days of the police department, and with Chief John Bohl. Chief Bohl loved children, and he understood the importance of maintaining a positive relationship between police officers and children. Chief Bohl is credited with starting a crossing guard program, and he was frequently found in the schools interacting with students. Over the years our officers have routinely interacted with our schools at all levels. We have provided Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) instruction to Chardon Students for over 30 years. Additionally, for the last eight years the City and School have collaborated to fund a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned to the High School. The SRO can also frequently be found in the Middle and Elementary Schools interacting with students. Our bond with the school system and Chardon students became even more intense in the wake of the school tragedy of February 27, 2012. As a Police Department we appreciate the relationship that we have with the Chardon Local Schools including the administration, staff, and most especially the students. We recognize that the Thin Blue Line represents either the best of, or worst of, what our profession has to offer depending a person’s point of view. We understand that people frame what the line means to them based on a perspective that is unique to their own experiences with law enforcement. The officers of the Chardon police department strive to represent the best of what law enforcement officers should be. To us, the thin blue line represents the strength and courage of officers working together as a profession to make our community safe. We certainly recognize that we are blessed to live in a community that graciously supports the stressful job that law enforcement officers do, the very difficult situations that we respond to, and the many sacrifices that are made by our officers and their families. This support is evidenced by the numerous telephone calls and messages of support that we’ve received over the last 24 hours, and the hundreds of positive comments about law enforcement that have been posted on social media regarding this situation. It’s most important that we don’t lose sight that the members of the Chardon Police Department equally serve all persons who require our assistance without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression. When called upon we will respond. We will perform our mission as guided by our core values, and the principles of service, justice and fundamental fairness. That’s who we are, and that’s what our community expects of us.”

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