A western Massachusetts community has rallied around the principal of a local middle school after he was criticized for condemning the display of the Confederate flag in school.
Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School in Northampton, Massachusetts, addressed a supportive crowd of about 200 people who gathered outside of the school building on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
“Students should come to school and feel safe,” he said. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean we get to harm other people.”
The controversy started last month after some students brought Confederate flags to school and Caldwell condemned the action.
After students wore, posted, and shared images of the flag “along with claims of it being their First Amendment right to do so,” Caldwell made a video asking that Confederate flags not be present in virtual or in-person learning.
“I will not debate the Confederate flag is protected under the First Amendment right. I will also not debate that the Confederate flag has ties to racist organizations, beliefs and systems,” Caldwell said of the flag. “I want to be clear: I am asking that the Confederate flag not be present in virtual or in-person school. I make this request not to step on your rights, but to help create a safer and less distracting learning environment. I hope everyone realizes that flag is hurtful and controversial at the very least to so many people.”
But after Caldwell condemned the flag, a Facebook page called “JFK White Student Union” was created, featuring an image of the flag as a profile picture.
“We will not be intimidated by this anti-American tyrant … We cannot allow these individuals to erode our constitutional rights,” the page said.
Caldwell called the notion that he is an “anti-American tyrant” ironic.
“My people built this country,” he said. The economic power of the U.S. “is on the backs of people who look like me.”
During the Wednesday rally, students, staff and community members showed their support for Caldwell and condemned the page.
The crowd chanted, “What do we do when Black lives are under attack?”
“Stand up, fight back.”
Students said they were “outraged” by the Facebook page and wanted to show Caldwell that the message wasn’t representative of the entire school community.
Police are now investigating the page, which Caldwell believed was not created by a student but rather by a “very immature adult.” By Wednesday morning, the page had been taken down.
Caldwell said students weren’t punished for displaying the flag, but that a restorative justice model focused on education was employed.
“The purpose of school is to educate. And we shouldn’t waste an opportunity to educate in order to punish or in order to give a consequences,” Caldwell told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He added that the flag hasn’t appeared in the school since then.
Superintendent John Provost commended Caldwell, writing, “I wholeheartedly support Principal Caldwell’s work to interrupt the racism inherent in displays of the Confederate flag.”
He continued, “For such a community to be possible, there are some prerequisites, including freedom from symbols that serve to dehumanize any members of the community.”