School discussion about Norton student wearing upside-down flag on Veterans' Day will be held behind closed doors
by MIKE STILL
NORTON - A dispute over a John I. Burton High School student wearing a shirt with an upside-down American flag on Veterans Day will result in a closed Norton School Board session at its December meeting.
But School Board Chairman Jeff Begley said Tuesday the question of discipline will be left to Superintendent John Sessoms and Burton principal Charles Lowdermilk before December's meeting with the parents of sophomore Jim Bob Willis.
Bo Willis, the student's father, came to Tuesday's school board meeting to complain that his son was unfairly singled out by Lowdermilk three days after a Nov. 10 incident involving his son and friend Aaron Bentley. Bentley and Bo Willis each wore shirts with an inverted American flag above the breast pocket during the meeting.
Lowdermilk was not present at Tuesday's meeting.
Bo Willis told the board that his son wore a shirt with the upside-down flag to school on Nov. 10 and removed it after other students in an English class became upset because it might be offensive to veterans attending a school assembly later that day.
English teacher Lisa Davis said "half the class was hysterical" and she had to remove upset students to another room.
Bo Willis said Lowdermilk told his son the following Monday that he would talk to Sessoms about disciplining him for wearing the inverted flag.
"In a regular situation - a regular day - I don't know if it would be disrespect," Sessoms said of the flag issue. "In a ceremony honoring veterans ... I felt it would be taken as an insult. Mr. Lowdermilk does have judgment in situations like this."
Jim Bob Willis told the board that he removed the flag before the assembly and said "no" when asked by Bo Willis if he intended any disrespect.
Board member Willie Harris asked Jim Bob Willis why he wore the inverted American flag. The student, noting that an inverted U.S. flag is a signal for distress, said he wore it to "let people know this country isn't as great as it should be."
"I meant it to show my opinion on a day I felt was emotional brainwashing of these children," Jim Bob Willis told the board, adding that he and Bentley were threatened by one teacher.
Begley suggested that the issue should be discussed in closed session with the board, family and staff and placed it on the school board's Dec. 12 agenda.
"Until then, the principal will have to rule by our operating system," Begley said.
Bo Willis on Wednesday said the school system's conduct and dress codes have no provisions specifically addressing the flag issue.
Begley on Wednesday said he had not had time to review the conduct code. He noted that the board would have to review the situation with regard to the conduct code and any issues of students' rights or free speech, but he said the conduct code does allow some discretion for administrators in dealing with similar situations.
As a long time educator, I read with interest the dispute between the J.I. Burton administrators and the Willis family. The dispute involves the possible discipline of Jim Bob Willis for wearing an inverted American flag the same day the school was to honor veterans. The young man said he wore the flag that way to "let the people know this country isn't as great as it should be." The father said, "The school system's conduct and dress codes have no provisions specifically addressing the flag issue."
Instead of making up excuses or trying to find a loophole, the Willis family should apologize to the men and women who sacrificed their mental and physical well-being for all Americans. The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst and it seldom kills off the right people. Every American should honor and respect our veterans.
The Willis family could use a lesson in citizenship, specifically patriotism, respect for the American flag, respect for authority and law, and community-mindedness. Jim Bob should volunteer to help his country in the areas he feels are not great, instead of his disrespectful actions towards veterans and those who choose to honor Veteran's Day.
I think that maturity is the age at which you begin to realize there are more things you don't know than you do. Bo Willis' actions and heredity factored into the equation tells me it's going to be awhile for Jim Bob.
Student's words, deeds alone show disrespect
To the editor:
After reading about J.I. Burton sophomore Jim Bob Willis' decision to wear an inverted flag because a Veterans Day program was to be held at the school, I felt compelled to write this letter.
Willis stated he meant no disrespect, that he simply wore it to "let people know this country isn't as great as it should be." Willis' very words emphasize his disrespect. If he wants to protest something about this country, he should do so through the proper channels - such as voting. By wearing the shirt, he meant to flaunt his disrespect for the country in the faces of the brave people who had served it.
Mr. Willis, why don't you try living in another country? Let's see you could go to Saudi Arabia where girls can be executed for kissing or even holding hands with their boyfriends. Or why don't you try a country in Africa where the Ebola disease is running rampant because they don't have enough medical sup- plies or education about the disease. Oh, and don't forget South America.
Young men are sometimes forced into the army against their will and are forced to do terrible things they don't want to participate in. Also, in many of the war-torn areas surrounding Russia/Turkey, young women are often gang-raped or whole villages are killed in a planned genocide.
Mr. Willis, I guess you think it would be great to live in. one of those places since the United States is so rotten to you.
Flag stands for freedom, even freedom to protest
To the editor:
I felt compelled to write in response to Tamyra Kennedy's letter attacking Jim Bob Willis of Norton (Herald Courier Nov. 28). As a veteran, I feel only disgust at this entire flag issue.
People treat our most sacred symbols, the flag, Bible, or Bill of Rights, like a cookbook, where the chef selects the ingredients that taste good, but will ignore the recipe. Veterans didn't serve their country for a Betty Crocker Cookbook fluttering on a flagpole.
Our flag stands for freedom, for everybody, for every idea, good, bad or tasteless. It gives fundamentalist religious fanatics, atheists or Ms. Kennedy the right to speak and be heard. It even gives dumb politicians like Gee Dubya Bush the right to say, "There should be limits to freedom."
It doesn't give flag-wavers, religious fanatics, Norton City Schools, Ms. Kennedy, or even a dumb president the right to trample the free speech of others. The agents of ``correctness'' are the true desecraters of our flag and all it stands for.
Willis has broken no law, has not threatened or harmed anyone, yet the reaction to this has been irrational and childish. Willis should apologize for nothing: That flag gives him the right to do what he did. If one doesn't like the message, then don't listen! Selected freedoms are just tyranny.
The flag means freedom for everybody, and anything less makes the flag just another rag blowing in the wind. They owe Willis and our Founding Fathers an apology. Our flag is no rag!
2000 Bristol Herald Courier Published December 15, 2000
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