A group of Iowa high school students have been disciplined after a photo made the rounds on social media depicting them wearing white hoods and burning a cross in a field.
The photo shows five young men, all wearing what appear to be white pillowcases fashioned into KKK-style hoods. One of the people in the picture holds a rifle and another waves what appears to be a Confederate flag.
A makeshift cross burns in the background of the photo, which caused shock and consternation on social media.
The Des Moines Register reported that Creston Community High School officials learned about the photo Wednesday morning. An investigation by the administration determined some of the school’s students were involved in the incident.
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Jeff Bevins, the school’s athletic director and assistant principal, declined to detail the discipline handed down to the students, who are minors, the Register said. Bevins did speak out about the behavior depicted in the photo.
“That picture does not represent the beliefs of our school system, our parents, or our community,” Bevins told the newspaper.
School officials have also spoken to other students at the school to ensure that they feel safe coming to school. Principal Bill Messerole told the Register that many students were upset by the photo.
“This certainly isn’t an issue that you just forget and move on,” Messerole said. “We want to make sure that it’s OK to have a dialogue about this.”
Messerole said that the students know the picture is not an accurate representation of what the school, or the community, stands for.
One Creston High football player anonymously reached out to WHO Channel 13 in Des Moines to defend his teammates, indicating that at least some of the students involved were football players.
“As a current student at Creston and a member of the football team, I would just like to make a statement,” the teen’s statement read. “The five individuals that were involved with the picture are clearly in the wrong, and they will face the consequences eventually. But I can promise everyone that as a whole, our football team and community aren't about that. The actions made by a small group shouldn't represent the entire football team and community. I'm proud to be a part of what this team is actually about, and it's sad to see something like this ruin a rich tradition we carry.”
There was a similar reaction from some on Facebook, where at least one man defended the school and the community.
“I saw some comments that are calling the entire school and community racist, (and) I take issue with that,” Allen Bean wrote. “Having had the opportunity to do some volunteer work at Creston High School on several occasions, I saw firsthand the love and care they have for all students. I condemn those that are involved and think they deserve severe punishment, but let’s be careful labeling this school and its community.”
In the meantime, a Drake University law professor told the Register that he believes school officials overreached in their discipline of the students.
“This is a significant free speech issue,” Mark Kende told the newspaper. “If they’re off school grounds and they’re doing it in their free time and they’re not targeting someone in school, then this is a form of expressive speech.”
Kende explained that, according to Iowa law, hate speech is only a criminal offense if it specifically targets someone.
The professor told the Register that the students, if involved in extracurricular activities, may have been required to sign statements saying they would refrain from behavior that would reflect poorly on them and the school. The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech could override those statements, however.
“The school district’s going to have an issue,” Kende said. “The issue is complicated by the fact that the school is reaching beyond its typical school orders to penalize them.”