In an email to Marshall families Friday afternoon, principal Jeff Litz said he and his staff are taking the controversial social media post very seriously, and he will begin engaging in school-wide lessons surrounding race towards the end of the first quarter.
Litz also said despite the polarizing presidential campaign, he still supports and respects everyone’s political decisions and views, but he will not tolerate offensive or vulgar language.
“As principal of George C. Marshall High School, I will not tolerate any acts of hatred, bigotry, racism, or discrimination-in person, nor on social media when they impact our educational environment,” Litz said in the email. “This is not what I stand for and it is not what our school and school community represent. When actions that are counter to our beliefs and values are brought to my attention, I will not hesitate to act on them.”
Political backlash doesn’t just affect celebrities on Twitter, senior Finn Gillespie and six of his friends learned this week when a photo the group posted featuring a flag supporting President Donald Trump drew significant criticism.
The Instagram account @vahiphopandnews, which has over 6,000 followers, reposted the picture with the caption “This how the Marshall high school kids goin?” The post sparked controversy among the Marshall community, garnering over 3,100 comments as of Friday morning.
Gillespie said he and his friends met to take pictures in the Marshall parking lot wearing their new GCM Senior King t-shirts. Then, a friend came with a Trump flag, which featured an expletive-laden campaign slogan, and the group decided to take pictures with it.
Senior Luke Plawin, another student in the photo, said shortly after the students posted the image on their personal social media accounts, they received waves of negative comments.
“If you read through the comments, they’re just completely intolerant to other peoples’ opinions,” Plawin said. “They mostly took shots at our appearance, character and moral compass without even knowing who we are.”
While a few replies merely demonstrated political differences, Gillespie said some commenters went as far as posting the students’ home addresses. Others made death threats.
“It’s just [kind of] demoralizing when we have over 2,000 comments on a post calling [us] racist, [Ku Klux Klan members], pigs, old friends of mine saying ‘We don’t claim them’ [and] ‘They should be burnt alive,’” Gillespie said. “We’re not at all racist in any way, and being harassed over personal political beliefs is just kind of childish and immature.”
But 2018 graduate Erin Williams, who commented on the Instagram post, said the students in the photo did not consider how it would be received by their community, especially those directly impacted by the president’s adversarial statements and policies.
“I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and to support who they wish, except by supporting Trump,” Williams said. “Those students have implied that racism and sexism [aren’t] a deal-breaker to them [in] who they support politically.”
Williams said she thought it was unnecessary for the group to turn their senior gathering into a political statement.
“There are many minority students at Marshall who Trump has offended and belittled, and there was no reason for them to bring that flag to school grounds,” she said. “They knew they were going to get a reaction from that post, so they shouldn’t be acting so innocent.”
When asked how the situation would be different if the flag supported Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, Williams said comparing Trump to Biden is apples to oranges.
“Biden hasn’t completely dismissed the struggles and needs of minorities, whereas Trump has,” Williams said. “I think it’s important to talk about politics in school, but […] people should be mindful that there are students with different views.”
Sophomore Eden Foley said despite people’s political freedoms, the photo was still surprising.
“We live in a country where we are able to speak our minds, but I was just shocked the people around me were supporting someone I personally think is un-American and, in my opinion, unfit to be running our country,” Foley said.
Plawin said he understands people have different political views but feels his should be equally respected.
“For anyone who disagrees with me and my friends’ views, I want you to know that I’m glad you have your own opinion because that’s what America is all about,” Plawin said. “I just ask for people to be more accepting of views they may disagree with and to never hate someone for their political beliefs.”
Foley said the picture bothered her because they took it in the school parking lot.
“I believe everyone should have their own opinion on things such as politics, but the fact that they posted it and also took the picture at school was a jaw-dropper,” Foley said.
Government teacher Danielle Koehler said she believes the group was within their constitutional rights, regardless of where they took the photo.
“Whether I agree with them or not, they should not be condemned nor should Marshall High School,” Koehler said. “Students do not lose all of their constitutional rights when they step on to our campus.”
Plawin said he does not regret posing in the pictures.
“I’m proud of my beliefs and I will stand by them,” Plawin said. “[I wish] it didn’t get blown up like that, but that was out of our control. We have nothing to regret. It was a simple act of innocence: friends taking photos and putting a flag in it. That’s all it was.”
Koehler said today’s political climate plays a strong role in how people reacted.
“If it was any other Republican candidate, [like] Mitt Romney in 2012, would people be this upset?” Koehler said. “If it was a Biden flag, would people [be] this upset? We are so polarized right now. If anyone disagrees with our beliefs, we take it as a personal attack and we demonize the other person. We need to stop cutting down the opposing party. We need to get back to a bi-partisan government. At the end of the day, it’s a flag.”