Although Eboni Goodman says Confederate flags are relatively common sights around Visalia, the last place she expected to find one was on the ceiling of her daughter’s history classroom at La Joya Middle School – right above her daughter’s desk.
It’s particularly hurtful, Goodman says, because she and her 13-year-old daughter are African American, and the Confederate flag is a painful reminder of America’s slave history.
“Just imagine your family members have been murdered, hung from trees, beaten until their flesh was exposed and then somebody takes their picture and makes a mockery of it and puts it on the wall,” Goodman said. “That’s what that flag means to African Americans.”
When Goodman learned from her daughter about the classroom flag, she spoke out during a joint meeting of the Visalia City Council, Visalia Unified School District and College of the Sequoias on April 4. When she finished speaking, “It was silent, the whole room,” Goodman said. After the meeting ended, she was approached by the Visalia Unified board president and assistant superintendent, who apologized to her. The flag came down that same night.
My concern is it represents white supremacy, racism (and) slavery.
La Joya principal Travis Hambleton said the history class was studying the Civil War, and the flag hung as an illustration of that time period.
Hambleton said the teacher never intended to make Goodman’s daughter uncomfortable by flying the flag.
“We are certainly not trying to be controversial – we are just trying to help kids learn,” Hambleton said in an email. “When the concern was brought to us, we addressed it immediately.”
But Goodman questions why school officials didn’t immediately recognize how repugnant such a display would be, especially for an African American student.
“My concern is it represents white supremacy, racism (and) slavery,” Goodman said. “That’s my concern, and my daughter is being discriminated against.”
Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it’s not illegal to fly the Confederate flag, but such a display would be “possibly an ethical issue.”
Costello said the history teacher could have considered the student’s feelings before hanging the Confederate flag in the classroom because it carries a lot of power and is “really loaded.” She added that the Confederate flag many people fly today became popular during the Civil Rights era as a form of resistance.
She said hanging the flag at La Joya, especially over the only African American student in the class, was “not the best judgment on the part of the teacher.”
Nationwide, there are few reports of teachers hanging Confederate flags in classrooms, Costello said. The more prevalent issues have to do with students displaying the flag on clothing or on their vehicles.
Visalia Unified Area Superintendent Jacqui Gaebe said the La Joya teacher has used the flag to teach about the Civil War in the past, perhaps for about eight years, and until now there were no issues. She added that the teacher also uses the Betsy Ross flag along with the current United States flag during the lesson. Another class at the school, Gaebe said, places a picture of the flag on a whiteboard.
But, Gaebe said, “We never want to be in a situation where we are in conflict with a parent.” The district decided to take down the flag, she said, because it raised sensitivity issues.
We are certainly not trying to be controversial – we are just trying to help kids learn.
La Joya principal Travis Hambleton
Visalia Unified Board President Lucia Vazquez said that it was a “no-brainer” decision to remove the flag from the classroom immediately. She added that the mother coming forward with her concerns during the meeting helped the district learn about the situation and take action. “We want what’s best for children,” she said.
Gaebe said there appeared to be no political motive behind the teacher hanging the flag at La Joya, and while she is confident no laws were broken, she was happy to agree to Goodman’s request to remove the flag. She added that the student’s desk placement, which is assigned by the teacher, along with the placement of the flag was just a coincidence.
There seem to be no specific laws that ban the Confederate flag from being flown to teach about the Civil War, although Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state law banning the flag from being flown or sold on state property.
That law was subsequently challenged when an artist’s painting, which included the Confederate flag, was barred from display at the Big Fresno Fair. The fair is operated by a state agency.
A First Amendment showdown over the painting’s display was averted after an agreement in federal court in Fresno allowed it to be shown at the fair.
Visalia school officials said they plan to meet soon with Goodman to talk about her concerns.
But she’s not convinced that the school district fully understands why she believes displaying the flag is wrong. “They don’t get it. No one gets it in this school district. I don’t understand why,” Goodman said.
Goodman said her concerns are not just about her daughter’s well-being, but for the well-being of all other students. She said she wants to bring awareness of what that flag could mean to students like her daughter.
“If that flag was ever put back up at La Joya (and) my daughter was not there and I became aware of it, I would say something again,” Goodman said. “It’s not just about my daughter.”