BEMIDJI-Geri Hickerson shouldered a large American flag.
"So there's no truth to the rumor that the high school has banned American flags?" she asked Jason Stanoch, principal at Bemidji High School, as a crowd of students in their own red-white-and-blue regalia chatted and laughed at the base of the school's flagpole on Friday afternoon.
"No," Stanoch said firmly. "None whatsoever."
"And there's no truth to the rumor that possibly or it could convolute into the American flag being banned in the district?" she asked.
"No. There never was a discussion about that at all," Stanoch said. "I don't know where that would come from."
It started simply-more or less.
A staff member at Bemidji High School on Wednesday told sophomore Mason Valerius that his sweatshirt, which has a depiction of the American flag comprised of bullets and grenades across the chest and a pair of crossed muskets on the arm, wasn't allowed in school because it violated the school's dress code. Valerius, 16, met with an assistant principal, but, from there, stories diverge at least slightly.
Valerius, a member of the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, claimed the assistant principal said the shirt's depiction of guns violated the dress code, and told him to remove it or head home for the day. He and his friend Tristin Kindred, another BHS sophomore and JROTC member, spoke to the staff member who first spoke to Valerius. Valerius' father showed up, spoke to the assistant principal, then took Valerius home shortly after noon. Stanoch, the high school's principal, characterized the meetings as "conversation"s and said Valerius was asked not to wear the sweatshirt again.
Bemidji High School's "dress guidelines," as outlined in page 58 of the student handbook, prohibit garments that "are likely to cause a material or substantial disruption to the school environment" or that "could be considered offensive." Given examples include references to weapons and violence.
Valerius told the Pioneer that he wore the sweatshirt as a show of support for the Second Amendment, and feels that there should be a "loophole" in the dress code for that type of expression. He wore it to school again on Friday.
His story and Stanoch's are more-or-less compatible, but Valerius' became grist for an online and in-person rumor mill Thursday and Friday. Some heard the school, or even the school district as a whole, was set to ban depictions of the American flag or had already enacted a ban; others that Valerius and other students had been suspended for wearing a depiction of it.
Valerius posted on Facebook that he was "getting in trouble at school" for wearing the sweatshirt, and that "they are debating on suspending me for this." He clarified to the Pioneer that no school district employee had told him that they were considering a suspension-Valerius' worry came from another student who said Valerius could be suspended for it.
A group of about 20-25 parents, students, and staff, led by Hickerson, Kindred's grandmother, stood outside the high school as classes dismissed for the weekend. Hickerson and a few other adult demonstrators held a large American flag, and other students proudly showed off other depictions they had worn to class that day: a red, white, and blue football jersey, a "Freedom Isn't Free" T-shirt with a depiction of the raising of the American flag after the battle of Iwo Jima, and a hybrid American/Confederate/Gadsden (Don't Tread on Me) flag, among others.
One student at the demonstration said he had been reprimanded for wearing a jacket with the flag on the back, but couldn't name the staff member who did so. Another said a hall monitor asked him to check with other administrators about his "Freedom isn't Free" shirt, but never did, and a third said a counselor verbally warned him about the U.S./Confederacy/Gadsden flag.
There were rumors complicating the demonstration itself: Hickerson's Facebook event characterized it as a "flag raising," but many wondered about a planned walkout. Most students at the demonstration filed out of the building at approximately 2:30 p.m., which is approximately when they'd have been released from class anyway.
And there was even an apparent miscommunication between Hickerson and Stanoch, who had planned to clear the air at the demonstration that afternoon: she said he would head out to meet her, he said he thought she would come inside to meet him.
Stanoch, a U.S. Navy veteran, eventually headed out to meet the demonstrators, pausing briefly to observe the National Anthem, which a student had set to play from a bluetooth speaker amid "Old Town Road" and a few other numbers.
Stanoch shook hands with Valerius and affirmed to Hickerson that the district and school had no plans to ban the flag.