School bans student from flying Thin Blue Line flag in memory of his dead police officer father


NEPTUNE BEACH, FL – A son’s tribute to his deceased police officer father has spiraled into a lightning rod for controversy at a Florida high school. 

The principal at Fletcher High School banned the football team from flying a Thin Blue Line flag on the field in honor of the student’s dad, who died off-duty.

The decision by school administrators followed allegations from critics who claim that the flag is “racist.” 

News 4 Jax quoted online complaints: 

“One post read: “…Fletcher really out here being openly racist…”

Another said:

“Thin blue flag shown at Fletcher High School game, a lot of students aren’t happy.” 

But the widow of Cpl. Andy Lavender told the news outlet that the action was neither politically motivated nor motivated by race. Lorie Lavender said it was merely a way for her son, Caelen, to honor his late father.

She told News 4 Jax

“It is all about my son’s love for his dad and his memory. He was one of a kind, and he is very much missed and loved.” 

Caelan, a junior offensive lineman, started running onto the field with the flag last year after his father, a Jacksonville Police officer, died unexpectedly in August 2019. 

The high school allowed the flag to fly during eleven games last season, and again last week, before the ban.  Fletcher High School Principal Dean Ledford issued a statement to the local TV station, which reads in part: 

“In consultation with the coaches, I determined that the act of using this flag in this personal way, while in the context of the football game opening ceremony, could easily be construed as representing a political position of our school and not just the personal feelings of the student and his teammates.

Therefore, I have determined that it is no longer appropriate to continue. I am in conversation with the student and his teammates about ways they can appropriately express their personal views.” 

Dr. Diana Greene, Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, issued a statement in support of the principal’s decision on Wednesday, September 23.

She said that Ledford took “proper action based on the educational values that should be considered in the situation involving the football team’s pregame ceremonies and the Thin Blue Line flag.” 

Her statement goes on to say: 

“As strongly as I support Principal Ledford, I also support each student’s right to express their personal views. However, if that personal expression can be easily construed as the position of other stakeholders or the school, it is not an acceptable manner of expression in a school environment.

This is the case with the Thin Blue Line flag, which in its matter of use, has come to imply something other than one student’s expression, but rather a position of the team and thus the school.” 

Since the doubled down decision by the principal and school district, there has been new backlash on social media.  On Twitter, user Hunter Crain wrote: 

“If we allow high school kids on the other side of town to kneel during the National Anthem, then this young man gets to run on the field with a Police flag.

His rights don’t stop because of your feelings. Fletcher should be ashamed of themselves for bowing down to BLM mob.” 

Another user, calling herself only “Debbie” posted: 

“You certainly taught this young man who lost his father a great lesson about standing up for what is right. The high school threw this young man aside for a bunch of strangers.” 

Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona commented to News 4 Jax: 

“This is a prime example where it was as innocent as can be, there is no politics involved, no us versus them, simply to honor a great man and allow his kids in the football team to honor him, and they have taken those, hijacked it and called it racism, and now the son and these kids are suffering because of it.” 

Sounds a lot like another controversy involving the Thin Blue Line flag at a high school football game this month:

SWANTON, OH — President Donald Trump invited two high school football players, who had been suspended by their school for carrying thin blue and red line flags onto the field, to join him on stage at a campaign rally on Monday, September 21st.

The two Little Miami High School football players, who had carried thin blue and red line flags onto a field supporting police and firefighters at a September 11th game, were brought on stage at Trump’s Monday campaign rally near Toledo.

Trump introduced the two Little Miami High School students, cornerback Brady Williams and linebacker Jarad Bentley, by talking about the need to support police officers, according to a video posted on C-SPAN of the Monday rally.

Trump said of law enforcement:

“We have to give them back their dignity,”

He continued:

“We have to let them do their job.”

The president said the two high school football players were “good-looking kids.”

The President said:

“They became more famous than President Trump,”

He went on to say:

“They were beautiful, I watched them running through the crowds with those flags.”

On September 11th, designated as Patriot Day by Congress since Dec. 18, 2001, the two football players ran onto the field carrying the flags, which show support for the nation’s law enforcement officers and firefighters, despite being warned not to do so by school officials.

The flags also have added significance for the boys as they are also the sons of a police officer and firefighter.

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As a result, the district suspended both boys and defended its decision in a statement issued to local media:

“While we understand these students’ desire (to) show their support of first responders, they did not obtain permission from district officials. Administrators must act when students break the rules.”

After Little Miami initially suspended Williams and Bentley, a petition to revoke the suspensions received 19,504 signatures:

“Jarad and Brady took a Thin blue and red striped flag out on the flag after they were told not to. The school suspended them indefinitely for supporting their fallen hero’s (sic). Sign this petition to help unsuspend the 2 student athletes who have lost their senior season.”

Their suspension was lifted the next day, after backlash that included the petition and a tweet from the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Josh Johns, a Little Miami alum, told the Cincinnati Enquirer he’s planning some kind of show of support for the two players at the next home game, scheduled for Sept. 25. He said he’s working out the details, but feels the point needs to be made that the incident had nothing to do with politics:

“Basically, I felt the punishment did not fit the crime. Brady’s dad is a police officer, Jarad’s dad is a firefighter and this was meant to honor first responders on the anniversary of Sept. 11.”

In a message from the Little Miami Board of Education obtained by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Little Miami school board president Bobbie Grice said the players have returned to active status after initially being suspended from the team:

“The results show that there were no political motivations behind this display of support for first responders on 9/11, but there were stances of insubordination.

“Moving forward, Little Miami is returning the players to active status and this matter will be addressed as an Athletic Department Code of Conduct issue, with any potential consequences to be handled by coaching staff.”

Grice also said that only the U.S. and school spirit flags will come through the tunnel for the rest of the sports season:

“Little Miami Local Schools is saddened to see this story take such a negative turn. The district enjoys an outstanding relationship with our local police and fire agencies.”

When asked if they were still glad they carried the flags, Williams replied, “Yeah, more than ever.”

Williams wore an NYPD hat and a thin blue line tie along with his suit while meeting the president, and Bentley wore a red tie.

Before the teens left the stage, Trump told them:

“You know what? You’re doing great. And everybody out here loves you and appreciates you.”

The nonprofit group Holiday for Heroes announced it would award the two students with scholarships.

On Sept. 2, we also reported on another school in Ohio that had an issue with displaying the thin blue line flag. Here is that report:

In Chardon, a school superintendent has banned the thin blue line flag after a high school football player carried one on the field Friday evening in support of his coach, who serves as a police officer.

News 5 reported that Chardon Local Schools Superintendent Michael Hanlon Jr. banned the flag in a school setting after it purportedly created controversy and that he said school district policy does not permit engagement in political activity.

As a result, the “thin blue line” flag will not be a part of any future pre-game activities at Chardon athletic events.

Many Chardon residents said the display of the flag was also a reflection of the bond between Chardon students and police that was forged in February 2012, when officers were among those who rushed to Chardon High School after a teenage gunman killed three students and wounded three others.

Shooting victim Nate Mueller, who was shot in the ear by T.J. Lane at the school, disagreed with the superintendent’s ban and said showing support for first responders should not be viewed as racist:

“I am infuriated that the superintendent has the nerve to bring up the shooting to try to get out of a cornered position politically.”

Resident Bill Manning told Fox 8:

“I agree with the players wholeheartedly. We support our police 100 percent and I definitely disagree with banning that flag.”

The “thin blue line flag” is considered a symbol of support and solidarity with members of law enforcement. However, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, the flag has become politicized by some who claim it is a symbol of white supremacy.

Andrew Jacob is the president of Thin Blue Line USA, an online retailer that sells pro-police flags, T-shirts, neckwear and jewelry, and said the flag is not political:

“The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry. It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.”

Jacob also recalled while building his company all the news stories about multiple police officers being shot to death in Louisiana, New York, Texas and other states.

After the deadly ambush of several Dallas police officers in July of 2016, the blue line flag became a common sight with people wearing shirts, posting signs or putting bumper stickers on their cars to show support for the officers who were killed.

Dallas Police Sgt. Stephen Bishopp has a doctorate degree and has studied police stress, use of force and officer misconduct. The “thin blue line” symbol existed before several of his colleagues were gunned down by a sniper and to him, it symbolizes respect and understanding for the families of officers killed in the line of duty:

“When I see that flag as a sticker on a car or flying in someone’s yard, I know that there is someone there that knows what I’m going through.

“They know because they are a part of the family. I don’t really care if it bothers people or hurts their feelings to see that flag. I absolutely could care less.

“I am proud of what I do, the people I work with, and the ones who have died defending the rights of strangers. I will continue to fly that flag until my very last day.”

In a statement to the community, Hanlon said the incident understandably drew responses on social media and direct communications to district officials:

“Based on discussions that ensued over the weekend, it does not appear that this action was motivated by racism, rather a show of support for one of our coaches who serves as a police officer, as well as for the first responders in our community who have developed a special relationship with our school and students in the wake of our school tragedy of February 27, 2012.

“Nevertheless, it is understandable how this could be interpreted as a racially-motivated action and, therefore, not acceptable in a school community.

“Our school district is fundamentally anti-racist as reflected in Board of Education policies ranging from Equal Employment Opportunity to matters of student and staff activities.

“Our goal is to ensure that all students, staff and community members are provided the same opportunities to grow and learn in Chardon Schools and that this occurs in an environment that values the contributions of every school community member.

“Our staff members work to support that goal in our classrooms and through lessons learned within the scope of extracurricular activities.”

The district is also working on a plan with the athletic director to review any pre-game displays for possible connections to any form of discrimination or particular political views, News 5 reported:

“The district is committed to an atmosphere that respects and values every individual within our school community and is in the process of engaging with an equity/organizational development consultant to review policies, practices and systems throughout the district.

“The goal of this work will be to improve awareness and to develop specific strategies that will enable us to move forward effectively.

“As a school district we absolutely recognize the significant impact of this event and the discussion that occurred in our community in the following days. It will be important for us to use this as a learning opportunity and to grow stronger as a school district.”

On Facebook, Chardon Police Chief William Scott Niehus posted that his “officers appreciated the show of support demonstrated by the players” during challenging times. In part, he posted:

“We recognize that the Thin Blue Line represents either the best of, or worst of, what our profession has to offer depending a person’s point of view.

“We understand that people frame what the line means to them based on a perspective that is unique to their own experiences with law enforcement.

“The officers of the Chardon police department strive to represent the best of what law enforcement officers should be. To us, the thin blue line represents the strength and courage of officers working together as a profession to make our community safe.

“We certainly recognize that we are blessed to live in a community that graciously supports the stressful job that law enforcement officers do, the very difficult situations that we respond to, and the many sacrifices that are made by our officers and their families.

“This support is evidenced by the numerous telephone calls and messages of support that we’ve received over the last 24 hours, and the hundreds of positive comments about law enforcement that have been posted on social media regarding this situation.

“It’s most important that we don’t lose sight that the members of the Chardon Police Department equally serve all persons who require our assistance without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression.

“When called upon we will respond. We will perform our mission as guided by our core values, and the principles of service, justice and fundamental fairness. That’s who we are, and that’s what our community expects of us.”

The Chardon Board of Education responded by releasing a statement saying that while they agree with Chief Niehus regarding how the flag is perceived differently by others, it made clear that the board believes it has political meaning:

“Chardon Local School District values and respects the police and all first responders. Our relationship with our local officers is stronger than most, given their fast response and the bravery they demonstrated on February 27, 2012 and in the aftermath of that tragedy.

“We greatly value our partnership with local law enforcement and first responders. We agree with Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus’ statement that the Thin Blue Line flag is perceived differently by different people. For some, it has political meaning.

“The Chardon Board of Education would like to make it clear that we are in full support of Dr. Hanlon’s and the Administration’s decision regarding the football team’s display of the Thin Blue Line flag on the field at last week’s football game. Because it was displayed as part of a pre-game ceremony under the supervision of school staff, it was construed as sanctioned by the school district. Political activity by staff members is not allowable under Board of Education policy.

“Our support for Dr. Hanlon and the District policy prohibiting political speech by staff members does not diminish the District’s support and appreciation for police and all first responders.

“We understand that the team’s intent was simply to support our community first responders. We also understand that this action evoked immediate concerns from some members of our local community.

“The Chardon Board of Education respects and values all points of view and has a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students. The Administration’s decision regarding this event, and the directive to have a teacher remove a “Black Lives Matter” backdrop from the virtual classroom, are both in keeping with district policy.

“Dr. Hanlon and our administrators have been working tirelessly all summer to make sure our students and staff are able to come back safely to school. There was considerable concern that our athletes would not even be able to play at all, but they are playing and we are doing everything we can to make this school year successful.

“It is our hope that the community will understand both our obligation to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students and our dedication to handling this situation in keeping with school policy.

“Thank you for your understanding of this sensitive issue.”

The statement was signed by Madelon Horvath, president of the Chardon Board of Education.

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