The William S. Hart Union High School District governing board held a discussion Wednesday night regarding potential future board policies or regulations related to displaying of flags or banners – in response to the controversy involving the flying of the “Thin Blue Line” flag during Saugus High School’s football games.
The governing board discussed two separate but related issues that arose from the Thin Blue Line flag controversy. The first one relates to flying flags or banners on district property and the second issue relates to student conduct during extracurricular and cocurricular events, with specific regard to the displaying of flags, banners, symbols or other insignia.
Ultimately, there was no vote or action taken by the board as of Wednesday night.
However, the board agreed to possibly vote on potential policy for displaying flags or banners on district property at the next board meeting. They also agreed to continue further discussion regarding policy for student conduct as it relates to this issue before making any final decisions.
“Tonight, we have the opportunity for the governing board to entertain a discussion about potential new policy to guide the district’s practice with regard to flying flags and banners,” said Mike Kuhlman, superintendent of the Hart district.
District staff presented a total of five options — three options for potential policy for flagpoles and two options for potential policy regarding student conduct, again as it pertains to flying flags or banners at district-sponsored events or activities.
“The first is to restrict flags to the American and state flag. The second is to allow for commemorative flags with a process that includes prior board approval for commemorative flags,” Kuhlman said. “And the third is to restrict flags, to just the American and state flags, but to create a process for the community to ask for non-flag-based commemorations.”
According to the agenda, the two options for potential policy would regulate students’ use of flags, banners, symbols or other insignia during district-sponsored extracurricular or cocurricular activities — meaning administrators could prohibit students from displaying a specific flag or symbol. These potential policies do include a procedure for administrators to approve or deny the use of flags, banners, symbols or other insignias.
The policies would not apply during practices, dress rehearsals or similar events where the public is not present.
Kuhlman opened the discussion with a brief overview of the timeline of events. In late October, the Saugus High School football team carried out the Thin Blue Line flag as the team took the field for a game versus Golden Valley High School as part of its pre-game ritual. The previous month, the players had been told they could no longer carry the flag.
The reappearance of the flag continued the controversy, as the flag drew a sharp line between those who view it as an appropriate symbol of support for law enforcement and those who view it as a divisive symbol of far-right political extremism.
“The point of this is not to advocate for any particular position, but to clarify the numerous misconceptions and misstatements that have been promulgated over the weeks,” Kuhlman said.
According to Kuhlman, the Centurions’ football team did not take a vote on whether they would carry the flag, and the coach did not authorize this practice. Not every player on the team was in support of the flag representing the team, and the coach told players to discontinue flying the flag when the issue was brought to the district’s attention, Kuhlman said.
Kuhlman shared the Saugus High School administration’s decision, but many community members disagreed. When Kuhlman reviewed the decision, he used two criteria — the first is board policy, and in the absence of board policy it comes to the second criteria, “long-standing” practice.
The Hart district does not have specific policy in place addressing flying flags on district property or student conduct related to flying flags at school-sponsored activities. Kuhlman said the district’s long-standing practice is “to restrict flags to the American and state flag.”
“I’d like to invite our governing board that when this conversation begins, I believe it’s most profitable if we focus on the policy moving forward,” Kuhlman said. “The guidance that the board can provide, given that this will not be the only time that a question comes about flags flying in our district.”
Wendy Wiles, the district’s legal counsel, joined the governing board, and explained how the First Amendment applies in school districts and how it’s “always evolving.”
“We have student speech, we have teacher speech and we have government speech,” Wiles said. “They’re all different and they’re all regulated differently.”
There’re also different types of “free speech forums,” which pertains to the location of where the speech happens. The district falls under “government speech,” which can be regulated, she added.
“When you’re talking about government speech, it’s the speech that the government is using to expound its own views or positions or what it is supporting,” Wiles said. “When we talk about flag poles outside of the district offices… those are typically what the government is determining is what they want to have in front of their offices.”
As Wiles explained, the issue regarding what flags the district has on its flag poles is more straightforward compared to when students are involved.
“In a school-sponsored activity, whether it’s an athletic performance, whatever type of activity that is, that is really the district or school itself providing an activity that is both for the community and for others,” Wiles said.
For example, students who attend sporting events and are out in the stands are less regulated than students participating in the sports teams, according to Wiles. The students at the sporting event attend at “their own individual capacity” whereas an athlete is there “in uniform representing the district.”
“Students have First Amendment rights, just like teachers have First Amendment rights in classrooms. They’re not unlimited,” Wiles said. “They are able to be regulated but in a different fashion.”
“So, looking at these issues, and policies, it allows the board to determine how it wants the district to authorize what will be acceptable when representing the district — the flags that you may fly outside the district office or the actions of students, coach or someone coming out onto a field and how they’re representing the district.”
Prior to the discussion, Joe Messina, who represents Trustee Area No. 5 and who is the presiding officer of the board, made a point to address the Centurions’ recent home playoff game against Millikan High School.
The coach of the Long Beach’s Millikan High had told a Los Angeles newspaper group that he was concerned for the safety and emotional well-being of his players making the road trip to Santa Clarita.
“I’m finding it more and more interesting in our community how certain groups are pushing certain ideas, if you would, on others,” Messina said. “The Thin Blue Line flag some are against because they think it does nothing but denote racism.”
“The team was afraid to come up here because of people waving the Thin Blue Line flag even though there were no threats,” Messina said. “There’s no violence. You’ve never had that kind of violence up here to begin with.”
The governing board thanked Wiles and district staff for their reports, and each member had various questions or statements on the issue.
Bob Jensen, who represents Trustee Area No.2, asked for further clarification on how First Amendment rights in school districts were established and how they were used to establish policies. Wiles explained that over decades, various cases have been analyzed to establish the rights of students and in what capacity at school.
“We tried to identify ways in options which we put in some of the policies that you could allow some flexibility but still maintain what would ultimately be the board’s preference and policy on how these would be utilized,” Wiles said.
Linda Storli, who represents Trustee Area No. 1, said it was important for the governing board to establish board policy. She also noted the governing board had not been able to discuss the controversy until Wednesday, when it was properly agenized.
“This is the place where the board can talk and is the only time the board can talk to each other in this forum,” Storli said.
Cherise Moore, who represents Trustee Area No. 3, said there’s noticeably been frustration from the community because the board has taken so long to address the issue.
“We are at the point where we need policy. I hate that people have felt attacked or bullied or threatened because we don’t have policy in place,” Moore said. “That’s on us and we have to own that.”
Jensen also wondered what consequences were there if the governing board decided not have policy addressing this particular issue.
“The reason you want to have policy is that it’s not only helpful for the community to know what the board set at its policy, but also for students to know what is acceptable or not acceptable,” Wiles said.