Richland flag

An undated image depicts a Richland High School student standing on the American flag.

A photo of two Pennsylvania teens — one standing on an American flag, the other flipping off the camera — has caused a stir and led school officials to seek police assistance as they investigate the image.

The photo, posted to social media over the weekend, shows a young man smiling as he stands on the flag in what appears to be a Richland, Pennsylvania School District classroom. A fellow student is posed next to him with her middle finger raised.

Richland School District Superintendent Arnold Nadonley described the photo as unfortunate and disrespectful, and said school officials forwarded it to Richland Township Police to assist them with their investigation.

“We understand that students’ rights don’t end at the schoolhouse gates,” Nadonley said. “But we’ll pursue this matter in whatever legal way we can, with due process and with respect to the flag, our Constitution and our country."

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Pennsylvania chapter, said the Supreme Court has made it clear that people can stomp on, damage and even burn the nation’s flag when it’s meant as a form of protest. For school-age students, it applies, too, when the act – in this case posing for a photograph – doesn’t cause a disruption on school property or in the classroom, he said.

“As long as they were trying to send a message of protest, it sounds like they are protected to me,” Walczak said, suggesting Richland administrators “tread lightly.”

While that would mean they could not be criminally prosecuted, any separate acts that might be violations of school disciplinary code, such as destruction of school property, could create other troubles for the teens, he said.

Since the photo's posting, Nadonley said the district had dealt with a wave of strong reactions to the image, saying the district took “safety precautions” during afternoon athletic practices because of threatening comments made about Richland students.

Nadonley said the district was not discussing specifics about the photo or investigation until their review is complete. But he said the district is taking the photo “very seriously,” promising a timely and thorough review.

The district posted a statement to the public from Solicitor Timothy Leventry on its Facebook site early Sunday, promising a thorough review and “legal discipline.”

Richland Township Police also released a statement saying they are aware of the photo and are working with the district to resolve the issue.

Both posts spurred hundreds of comments, including more than 275 on the district’s Facebook page.

Nadonley said the district understands both students and the public have a right to free speech, but there are times words or images cross a line, he said.

“We had parents concerned about whether it was safe to take their kids to practice,” Nadonley said.

Threatening comments prompted the district to follow protocol and take “extra steps” to ensure students were safe Sunday, “just in case,” Nadonley said.

Aside from noting Richland Township police were well-aware of matter, he said he did not want to divulge details about steps taken, saying it could undermine their effectiveness.

“This photo is not representative of the feelings of the 1,600 students in our district,” he said, adding that district students alerted administrators about the photograph. “Out of respect for our veterans – both those who have defended our flag and those still serving in the military – nobody wants to see something like this.”

Nadonley said he was hopeful the district’s investigation will be able to end soon so the community “can move on.”

Hurst writes for the Johnstown, Pennsylvania Tribune-Democrat. 

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