Social Studies

Foreign Flags in Classroom Lead to Teacher’s Removal

By Laura Greifner — September 06, 2006 2 min read
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A flap over a flag display has caused a Colorado teacher to leave his post and await reassignment elsewhere in the Jefferson County district.

Eric Hamlin, who was set to teach 7th grade world geography at Carmody Middle School in Lakewood, posted the flags of China and Mexico in his classroom as he prepared for his first year of teaching at the 700-student school.

On Aug. 21, an assistant principal pointed out to him that the display potentially violated a Colorado law banning the display of foreign flags in public buildings.

“It caught me off guard,” said Mr. Hamlin, who noted that he hadn’t heard of the law and that in three years of displaying flags in other district schools, he hadn’t received any complaints.

Mr. Hamlin, 36, refused to remove the flags, which were part of the first six-week unit he teaches on basic world geography and cultural traits, including the meaning of symbols. “To me, it would be like taking the periodic table away from a chemistry teacher,” he said last week.

According to Mr. Hamlin, the assistant principal returned later in the day with a more detailed explanation of the law and its exceptions, which include a temporary display for educational purposes.

Mr. Hamlin said he felt his use of the flags was covered under the educational exception to the law.

Lynn Setzer, a spokeswoman for the 84,000-student Jefferson County school district, said the issue was tied to whether Mr. Hamlin had a specific educational purpose for the flags he displayed. “It’s a gray area,” she said.

Carmody Principal John Schalk issued Mr. Hamlin a letter of reprimand, but the teacher still refused, as a matter of principle, to take the flags down. He was placed on paid administrative leave Aug. 23 for insubordination.

Although Mr. Hamlin and school and district administrators agreed to a tentative plan for his reinstatement at Carmody Middle School, the teacher later decided that resuming teaching there would not be in anyone’s best interest. He remains on indefinite paid leave while the district looks for a reassignment.

A Missed Opportunity?

Both Mr. Hamlin and the Education Commission of the States have heard of other incidents in Colorado in which complaints were lodged when schools displayed foreign flags. In nearby Littleton, after hearing about Mr. Hamlin, a middle school principal removed about 26 flags that were on display in the school gym representing the native countries of all the students. Instead, students will collaborate on creating banners representing their homelands to put in the gym.

Laws in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Rhode Island also bar or limit the display of foreign flags on public property, according to the Denver-based ECS.

Mark A. Montgomery, the president of the Denver-based EdVantage Consulting and the former director of the Center for Teaching of International Relations at the University of Denver, said administrators in Mr. Hamlin’s district missed a “teachable moment” in their handling of the issue.

“It is both disappointing and ironic that district officials in Jefferson County seem to fear legitimate curricular explorations of other cultures and nationalities—including the flags that represent those nationalities—at a time when most leading educational organizations and business groups in the U.S. advocate more international education, not less,” Mr. Montgomery wrote in an e-mail.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Foreign Flags in Classroom Lead to Teacher’s Removal

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