Flag controversy overshadows Grand Rapids football game

Posted at 10:41 PM, Sep 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-12 23:27:10-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Display of some flag at stirred up emotions at a Grand Rapids high school football game. The incident at a game between Forest Hills Central High School and Ottawa Hills High School took place at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids.

Some students from Forest Hills displayed a Trump campaign sign and so-called Betsy Ross flags during the game. Those flags display a circle of 13 stars on the blue field, a symbol co-opted by some white supremacy groups because the flag was used when slavery was still legal.

The display sparked a lot of reaction online over the weekend and a response from both school districts on Monday.

One parent, Matthew Patulski of Grand Rapids, wrote an open letter to the Forest Hills district:

“Your team, your coaches, your families were our guest, yet it seems many of your students are unaware of the negative impact these actions would have on members of our community."

Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm sent out a letter to Grand Rapids families expressing regret over what happened, saying in part that the injection of partisan politics into a community football game and into a commemoration of the events of September 11 is inappropriate. Behm also apologized to the entire Ottawa Hills community and Grand Rapids public schools.

Superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools Teresa Weatherall Neal also responded to the incident. “This type of behavior should not and will not be tolerated in our stadium or schools," said Weatherall Neal.

Full transcripts of the letters shared following Friday's incident can be found below:

Open Letter from Matthew Patulski

Letter from GRPS Superintendent Theresa Weatherall Neal:

“Let me first start by thanking our students, parents, staff, and community members for expressing their deep concerns and disappointment about the actions of a few event goers. I also want to thank Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm for his leadership, open letter to the community, and the apology he extended today. I cannot deny the hurt, disrespect, and outrage that I and so many others in this community felt about these actions that took place in our backyard, in our home at Houseman Field. This type of behavior should not and will not be tolerated in our stadium or schools – nor should it in any across our state and nation. I agree with Superintendent Behm that we as educators need to use this as a teachable moment and work together with the Kent ISD and MHSAA to ensure our student athletes, coaches, athletic directors, parents and our supporters are better informed, culturally sensitive, and more prepared to create an atmosphere where everyone – regardless of age, income, race, ethnicity, religion, native language, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation – are welcomed, respected, and can enjoy an athletic event together.”

Theresa Weatherall Neal
GRPS Superintendent

Letter from Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Behm:

It is a privilege to attend a football game on a Friday night. It’s a privilege to live in a country where our rights and freedoms have been secured by the sacrifices of blood, identity, and liberty of our elders and ancestors. It’s a privilege to not have to think about certain things and to not have to know about certain things—to not have to know, for instance, the dual history of certain icons, symbols, and words. Whether our privileges are derived from the circumstances of our birth, our race, our geography, our work, or our wealth, our blind privileges can produce a poverty of perspective and understanding.
One of the lessons we learn as youth is that if our actions cause harm to others, the impact is the same regardless of one’s intent. On Friday evening, September 9, during the football game between two wonderful schools, the actions of some and the inaction of others brought disrespect and confusion to many. Injecting partisan politics into a community football game and into a commemoration of the events of September 11th is inappropriate. Parading our current United States flag in a manner that is inconsistent with proper etiquette is disrespectful to all who have served our nation. And, to wave a historical version of our flag, that to some symbolizes exclusion and hate, injects hostility and confusion to an event where no one intended to do so. To our gracious hosts—the students, families, staff, and community of Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills High School and Grand Rapids Public Schools—and to the student-athletes, coaches, officials, and supporters of both teams, we are truly sorry. These actions are not characteristic of our schools, our staff, our students, or our community, and they represent a lack of knowledge. As a learning organization, in the days, weeks and months to come, we have a unique and precious opportunity to use our district’s Guiding Principles to continue to grow, build understanding, and demonstrate the true nature of our students, families, staff members, and community.

We are grateful to have Grand Rapids Public Schools as a partner in educational athletics and we look forward to many more meetings as part of the OK Conference. Our hope is that we not only meet together as we play sports, but, more importantly, that we can spend time building relationships and interweaving the threads of a stronger and more vibrant fabric that unifies our broader community. I am heartened by our students from Forest Hills Central who have taken the initiative to reach out to their peers at Ottawa Hills High School. This work happens through unhurried dialogue, listening, sitting side-by-side, and taking action. This work does not happen through tweets, posts, political posturing, or retreating to our familiar bubbles.

We are grateful to have partners in this work. Our own Global Learners Initiative has provided our community with knowledge- and love-filled champions. Even though our Global Learners Initiative has been in place since 2008, we have much more work to do and more people to connect.

Too much of the rhetoric in our society today, and witnessed by young people, fails to meet the standards of civic and civil discourse. Our youth can model a different way. If we create the right conditions, they can lead us from pain to progress. We can and will have dialogue about fear, justice, racism, rights, freedoms, responsibilities, personal convictions, and how—even in our polarized political climate—we can work to “form a more perfect Union.”

Our youth represent our future and, working together, we will live out our mission to partner with our community to “provide all learners with the opportunities to acquire the knowledge, skills, and experiences to build meaningful and productive lives.”

Our work continues. We look forward to your involvement and continued support. Please stay tuned to our website and FHPS District News for more information and how you can be involved.

Thank you for your support as we continue to serve the children and families entrusted to our care.

With deep respect and appreciation,

Dan Behm