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So That’s What the Flag Pole is For

Friday April 04, 2003

In recent weeks, Berkeley High School has been the site of a teach-in, a die-in and a walkout, among other anti-war activities. But thanks to Michael and Vicki Larrick, it all happened in the shadow of an American flag. 

The couple, parents of a freshman and conservatives in a liberal haven, noticed this fall that the school had no outdoor flag and very few classroom flags. They pressured the school district to conform with state law requiring a “suitable Flag of the United States” outside every school and “smaller and suitable” flags in each classroom. 

“If you’re not going to keep politics out of the classroom, at least abide by the law,” said Vicki Larrick, explaining her position. 

After the couple complained the school district moved quickly to put a flag in the courtyard, explaining they had taken down Old Glory two years ago at the start of a campus construction project and neglected to put it up again. 

A quick survey of most of Berkeley’s elementary and middle schools found most had a flag flying out front. Berkeley Arts Magnet Elementary School, according to a school secretary, is missing a flag because its pole is temporarily broken. 

But many classrooms at Berkeley High and around the district still do not hang an American flag by the chalkboard. District spokesman Mark Coplan said the central office ordered 371 classroom flags in the fall. But high demand since Sept. 11, 2001, has delayed the shipment, he said. 

Many parents, teachers and students are less than thrilled by the prospect of hoisting flags during a war that most Berkeley residents oppose. 

“I think that the issue of waving the flag right now does tend to represent support for what the government is doing,” said Annie Johnston, a Berkeley High School history teacher. Putting up the flag “sends a message, and it’s not a message that a lot of students in my classroom would be comfortable with.” 

But Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the district must comply with the law. 

“My personal views and those of the Board of Education can’t supersede the Education Code,” she said. “As a result, flags have to go in because we are in violation and we’ve been called on it.” 

Vince Rios, a Vietnam War veteran and officer with the American Legion in San Francisco, said mere compliance with the law is not the only reason to fly a flag. 

“This is something that should have been done voluntarily long ago,” he said. The flag “is part and parcel of American life. It’s as important to school kids as it is to have their mother’s and father’s portrait up.” 

Board of Education Director Terry Doran, who opposes the war, said he has no problem flying the flag, arguing that it need not suggest support for the invasion of Iraq. 

“I think the flag represents the best of America — the right to express differences of opinion,” he said. 

Most students said they didn’t notice the hoisting of the flag and have paid little attention to the “patriotic quote of the day” that now adorns the daily student bulletin. 

The district, after complaints from the Larricks, put the quote in place to satisfy a state requirement for “appropriate patriotic exercises” at the start of the school day — a requirement normally met with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. 

“It’s kind of intrusive, really, but we do live in America,” said Berkeley High senior James Foley of the reappearance of the flag. 

The Larricks said raising the flag is just a small part of a larger push to win balance in the classroom. They argue that Berkeley High teachers are using the classroom as a soapbox to express their liberal political views. 

“I just want to make sure my child is getting a well-rounded education,” said Michael Larrick. “I basically have to re-educate my kid every day.” 

Larrick pointed to a pair of incidents — the distribution of a petition in his daughter’s English class asking students to “support the struggles of the gay community” and a poster in Johnston’s history class equating California’s “three strikes” law with slavery. 

“Here’s a law that was put through by the democratic process and was recently upheld by the Supreme Court,” Larrick said. 

“They really don’t have a basis to criticize or critique my teaching,” said Johnston, who does not teach the Larricks’ daughter. “Putting provocative posters on the wall is part of keeping my students on their toes.” 

Students agreed that teachers regularly voice their own political views — usually liberal, but sometimes conservative — particularly in this time of war. Some teachers, whatever their stated beliefs, work to lead a balanced discussion but others do not, students said. 

“They’re teaching us what to think and not how to think,” said senior Joseph Manoleas. “The war is an awful thing, but I want to hear what the right wing is thinking.” 

School board directors said balance in the classroom is important, but defended teachers’ rights to speak their minds in an appropriate manner. 

“I think the teacher has a right to express his or her opinion as long as it’s expressed as his or her opinion,” said board Director John Selawsky.