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American flag shirts ignite firestorm
By Lindsay Bryant ; Gilroy Dispatch
May 6, 2010
Four Live Oak High School teens sent home for wearing American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo have become the focus of national media attention and spurred a march by Hispanic students through downtown Morgan Hill.
Live Oak students Daniel Galli, Dominic Maciel, Matt Dariano and Austin Carvalho wore red, white and blue T-shirts - some with the American flag and some with flag shorts - to school Wednesday, prompting administrators to ask the students to change their clothing or turn their T-shirts inside-out because it could incite a confrontation on Cinco de Mayo. The four students' parents were called into a conference with Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez and Principal Nick Boden, who sent the students home with an unexcused absence - not a suspension.
"I just couldn't believe it," said Dominic's mother Julie Fagerstrom Wednesday. "I'm an open-minded parent, but it's got to be on both sides. It can't be five kids singled out."
Students originally reported that five students were sent home, but one returned to class Wednesday.
Maciel said Rodriguez called the T-shirts "incendiary."
"They said we were starting a fight, we were fuel to the fire," said Dariano, a sophomore.
Teresa Casillas, parent of two Live Oak students, said the American-flag wearing students were yelling "We live in America!" at the brunch break Wednesday. She said her children were upset by their behavior at school, calling it disrespectful.
"We're all offended by it," Casillas said. She said parents of all ethnicities she spoke with felt that way. "Morgan Hill is too small of a community to start any racial wars. This is just bringing it out a little bit more."
The incident has set off a firestorm of outrage online, a flurry of media coverage and a backlash from some in the Hispanic community, who have been offended by some of the defenses offered for the four students.
After the Morgan Hill Times broke the story, Bay Area news stations set up camp in front of Live Oak High School Thursday morning as many more students came to school wearing red, white and blue. In addition, the story made it to national media outlets, such as The Drudge Report and the front page of FoxNews.com.
Locally, about 200 Hispanic students walked out of Live Oak and Ann Sobrato high schools, chanting "Si se puede" and "We want respect" and disrupting traffic as they marched through Morgan Hill to demonstrate their support for Mexico.
"It's disrespectful to do it on Cinco de Mayo," said Jessica Cortez, a Live Oak sophomore. "They can be a patriot on some other day. Not that specific day."
Live Oak parent Greg Hall saw the band of Hispanic students walking down Monterey Road Thursday.
"The fact that these four kids were singled out for wearing American colors is utterly ridiculous," he said. "I think the assistant principal and principal should be fired. The (protesting) students should be disciplined - suspended or expelled."
Hispanic students felt students wearing American flags were disrespecting the Mexican-American students on Cinco de Mayo - a day on which they celebrate their Mexican heritage.
Students who sported red, white and blue said denying them the right to wear American colors is a violation of the First Amendment.
While Live Oak administrators were silent on the issue, Morgan Hill Unified School District Superintendent Wes Smith said that the district "does not prohibit nor do we discourage wearing patriotic clothing."
In a statement, Smith wrote: "The incident on May 5 at Live Oak High School is extremely unfortunate. While campus safety is our primary concern and administrators made decisions yesterday in an attempt to ensure campus safety, students should not, and will not, be disciplined for wearing patriotic clothing. This matter is under investigation and appropriate action will be taken."
The four students and their parents met with Assistant Superintendent Jay Totter Wednesday evening at the district headquarters and they said Totter told them what happened was wrong and "(the district) would take care of it."
Uncle Sam even set foot onto Live Oak campus Thursday in the form of John Messina, a San Jose resident who said he was so enraged that he drove 30 minutes to protest before school started. He held a sign that read "Patriotism is not a crime" on one side and "Support the 1st amendment. Fire Rodriguez" on the back.
Over at Gilroy High School, Mexican and American patriotic colors commingled peacefully Wednesday, Principal Marco Sanchez said.
"Kids were in good spirits," he said. "I was out on campus most of the day and didn't see anything that was abnormal."
Plenty of students donned both countries' national colors, but none were sent home for wearing green, red, white, blue or any combination thereof, he said. Doing so would be "outrageous," he said.
"We're not going to be sending kids home for wearing American flags or wearing patriotic colors," Sanchez said. "That's discriminatory."
William J. Becker Jr., a First Amendment attorney based in Los Angeles, said the students' First Amendment rights were violated.
"The student wearing the Old Navy T-shirt with the flag does not shed their First Amendment rights at the school house gates," Becker said.
Administrators cannot ask students to relinquish their freedom of speech and expression due to the fear that something might happen, Becker said. When a person's right to freedom of speech or expression is restricted to prevent another party from reacting, it's known as the heckler's veto. Becker said this is a perfect example of how heckler's veto was used to displace the students' freedom of speech.
"Every viewpoint has a particular averse viewpoint," Becker said. "That's why the First Amendment is there - to support unpopular expression."
Comments left online on the Times and Gilroy Dispatch websites said the boys are often seen with American flag patches on their backpacks, and Maciel said he's worn the T-shirt he wore on Cinco de Mayo many times before.
"It's just because it was on their day," Maciel said.
One Mexican-American student, freshman Laura Ponce, had a Mexican flag painted on her face and chest, peeking out of her low-cut shirt. She did it because, "it's our day, the only day we can show our spirit."
A school administrator took away the Mexican flag she was carrying as she was waiting to go home.
"Not cool," she said in reaction.
"There was a lot of drama going on today," Ponce said. Some students were saying "Mexico sucks," and Mexican-American students responded in kind, she said.
"Some were yelling Spanish to us," said Maciel, who is half-Hispanic. "I couldn't understand it, but it sounded bad."
Curtis Collier, the president of the U.S. Border Watch, a citizens' action group whose mission is to "stem illegal entry into the U.S. from the north and south," called from his Texas office appalled by the news emanating across the Web and television.
"That is their constitutional right to wear the shirt," Collier said. "I think the school missed a golden opportunity here and missed having a dialogue between the students and have them talk it out."