Confederate Symbols Stir Racial Tensions in Ga.
By Leslie Harris
At three north Georgia high schools in recent weeks, still-powerful symbols of the Confederacy have stirred racial tensions.
In Gainesville, a parents' group has demanded the resignation of the district superintendent and the principal of Gainesville High School over their handling of an incident in which students painted a Confederate flag on a large rock outside the school.
In Carrollton, west of Atlanta, a high school principal found a cross burned on his lawn days after he barred students from wearing clothing with a Confederate flag and other racially charged symbols.
And federal officials are investigating a complaint against a Haralson County school's use of a Confederate officer as a mascot.
A state education official said that though such incidents are infrequent in the state, they are still troubling.
"It's alarming whenever it happens, [but] it's an activity that occurs sporadically," said Ishmael Childs, the coordinator of the equity division at the Georgia Department of Education.
Mr. Childs said his office, which provides assistance to schools to address problems that have arisen because of desegregation efforts, has dealt with similar issues at three different school systems in the past six years.
Call for Resignations
The troubles in Gainesville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, began during a "farmer/redneck" theme day during homecoming celebrations at Gainesville High School last month. Six white students wore T-shirts to school with images of the Confederate flag, said Principal Alan Zubay.
Three of those students painted the flag on the school rock. That action led to an argument between those students and several African-American students.
Wendell Christian, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Gainesville district, ordered the students to repaint the rock, assigned them to trash detail, and placed them in detention.
But that punishment has not satisfied members of the recently formed Parents Taking Action. The group, whose members include African-American students, parents, and ministers, has called for the resignation of Mr. Christian and Mr. Zubay.
Walter Rucker, a lawyer for the group, said the students should have been punished more severely for vandalizing school property, which the school handbook says is punishable by suspension or expulsion.
"We felt it unequal treatment, a dual system of justice," Mr. Rucker said. "Administrators are not giving the black students the amount of respect they deserve."
Mr. Zubay said recently he stood behind the punishment.
"I'm disappointed they feel this way," he said of the parents' complaints. "My goal is to continue to work with the students and parents to avoid this problem and become more sensitive."
He added that the school would hold no more "farmer/redneck" days. "It is something we will not do again because it creates the potential for student misunderstanding."
In Carrollton, about 40 miles west of Atlanta, Scott Cowart came home from church one Sunday last month to find an 8-foot cross burned in his front yard.
Mr. Cowart, the principal of Carroll Central High School, said the vandalism may have been retaliation for his recent ban on clothing with Confederate flags and other racially inflammatory symbols.
A 'Secure Environment'
"It was a very small number of kids who were upset enough to be disruptive," Mr. Cowart said recently. "What we did was a preventive measure. What we saw was a situation that could evolve, and we tried to correct this."
Since the new policy was adopted, several students have been sent home or asked to turn their T-shirts inside out. The school has also formed a group of about 20 students to discuss racial sensitivity.
"We are trying to provide a safe and secure learning environment for all students," Mr. Cowart said.
Brad Robinson, an investigator for the Carroll County sheriff's department, said four white teenagers have been charged with terroristic threats and acts in connection with the cross-burning.
Three of the young men are students at Carroll Central; one is a former student who transferred to another school.
At Haralson High School near Buchanan, about 50 miles west of Atlanta, the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights is investigating a student's complaint that the school's mascot--a cartoon Confederate officer--creates racial tensions.
U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia has denounced the OCR investigation as a waste of taxpayers' money.
"With the education crisis in our country, the federal government should have much more important matters to occupy its time than spending taxpayers' funds to investigate a Georgia high school mascot," the Republican congressman said in a statement.
According to local news reports, supporters of the mascot sneaked into the predominantly white Haralson County school last month and repainted a large Confederate flag near the gym that school officials had been allowing to fade away.
Tim McCreary, the lawyer for the Haralson County school board, said it was unclear whether the painting incident was a reaction to the federal investigation.
Mr. McCreary added that officials in the 3,100-student district do not believe the mascot causes racial problems, and said tensions at Haralson High are no worse than most other high schools.
"We don't believe there is a racially hostile environment being perpetuated," he said. "I don't anticipate there is going to be any change in the mascot unless students and the community want to change it."