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Minnesota student questions dress code that bans sweatshirt using ammo to depict US flag

Bemidji High School sophomore Mason Valerius, wearing a sweatshirt that features an American flag made up of ammunition, talks about why students were demonstrating at the school Friday, April 26. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service1 / 2
Bemidji High School Principal Jason Stanoch talks with demonstrators outside the school Friday, April 26. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service2 / 2

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Geri Hickerson shouldered a large American flag.

“So there's no truth to the rumor that the high school has banned American flags?” she asked Jason Stanoch, principal at Bemidji High School, as a crowd of students in their own red-white-and-blue regalia chatted and laughed at the base of the school’s flagpole on Friday, April 26.

“No,” Stanoch said firmly. “None whatsoever.”

“And there's no truth to the rumor that possibly or it could convolute into the American flag being banned in the district?” she asked.

“No. There never was a discussion about that at all,” Stanoch said.

Those rumors started after a staff member at Bemidji High School on Wednesday told sophomore Mason Valerius, 16, and a member of the school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, that his sweatshirt, which has a depiction of the American flag comprised of bullets and grenades across the chest and a pair of crossed muskets on the arm, wasn’t allowed in school.

Stanoch confirmed that Valerius was asked not to wear the sweatshirt again.

Bemidji High School’s “dress guidelines” prohibit garments that “are likely to cause a material or substantial disruption to the school environment” or that “could be considered offensive.” Examples include references to weapons and violence.

Valerius said he wore the sweatshirt as a show of support for the Second Amendment, and feels that there should be a “loophole” in the dress code for that type of expression. He wore it to school again Friday.

A group of 20 to 25 parents, students and staff, led by Hickerson, the grandmother of another JROTC student, stood outside the high school as classes dismissed for the weekend. Hickerson and a few other adult demonstrators held a large American flag, and other students proudly showed off other depictions they had worn to class that day: a red, white, and blue football jersey, a “Freedom Isn’t Free” T-shirt with a depiction of the raising of the American flag after the battle of Iwo Jima, among others.

Stanoch, a U.S. Navy veteran, eventually headed out to meet the demonstrators, pausing briefly to observe the National Anthem, which a student had set to play from a bluetooth speaker.

Stanoch shook hands with Valerius and affirmed to Hickerson that the district and school had no plans to ban the flag.