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Tension Over Southern Symbols

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Racial tensions have surfaced at three Georgia high schools in recent months over still-powerful symbols of the Confederacy.

  • 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, 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.

According to state education officials, such incidents occur infrequently. But when they do, the officials admit, it is troubling. "It's alarming whenever it happens, [but] it's an activity that occurs sporadically,'' said Ishmael Childs, coordinator of the equity division at the Georgia Department of Education. Childs said his office, which provides assistance to schools on problems that have arisen because of desegregation efforts, has dealt with similar issues at three other school systems in the past six years.

The troubles in Gainesville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, began during a "farmer/redneck'' theme day in conjunction with homecoming celebrations at Gainesville High School. Six white students wore T-shirts to school with images of the Confederate flag. 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, 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 Christian and school principal Alan 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,'' Rucker said. "Administrators are not giving the black students the amount of respect they deserve.''

"I'm disappointed they feel this way,'' Zubay said. "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 not be holding any 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, principal of Carroll Central High School, came home from church one Sunday to find an 8-foot cross burned in his front yard. Cowart said the vandalism may have been retaliation for his recent ban on clothing with Confederate flags and other racially inflammatory symbols. "It was a very small number of kids who were upset enough to be disruptive,'' Cowart said. "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,'' the principal 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 about the school's mascot--a cartoon Confederate officer. The student believes the mascot has created racial divisions at the school.

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.

According to local news reports, supporters of the mascot sneaked into the predominantly white Haralson County school in October 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.

"We don't believe there is a racially hostile environment being perpetuated,'' McCreary said. "I don't anticipate there is going to be any change in the mascot unless students and the community want to change it.''

--Leslie Harris

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