Flag controversy overshadows Grand Rapids football game

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 http://www.fhps.net 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
Superintendent

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18 comments

  • No PC For Me

    Oh BS those flags have NOTHING to do with slavery. Those flags represent America and are flown in protest to what the liberals are doing to america ( destroying it)
    Sorry black Americans, but these flags have NOTHING to do with you in a negative way. You are Americans right? then you should be proud of those flags.
    Its time YOU get over racism and move on about 240 years.

    And as a side note: You keep referencing white supremacy and the KKK. We do some research ( google id your friend} and you will learn the KKK was created by DEMOCRATS.
    Did you know the Dems created the first gun control laws to keep newly freed slaves ( Americans) from owning guns ? ( And what party STILL pushes gun control ? ) Don’t believe me? look up ” the black codes”.
    I’m not lying and not BSing you. What would I gain by lying?

  • steve

    There are quite a few people that can find ‘racism’ in a sunrise. And because of political correctness, there are a lot of people that listen to them.

  • Jason

    Here is what happens when our own leaders do not understand history and where a flag came from. I went to look and found this link http://www.ushistory.org/Betsy/flagtale.html . No where in this article does it mention anything about being used for racism. We can use anything and claim it is racism. Yet we fail to teach our children to critically think. This is nothing more then children expressing who they support in this current election cycle.

  • Kari

    For a mere two minutes while the National Anthem plays, you are an American. It’s got nothing to do with the color of your skin. Get on your feet! This kid and the professionals should be suspended and sent to play in Iraq. Disrespectful.

  • Jack Pieterschmit

    “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.”
    Seriously? This is a thing? It was also the flag of the revolution that eventually freed the slaves isn’t it?
    People who complain about things like this loose all the legitimacy they have by reaching this far.

  • Barry howell

    Matthew Patulski of Grand Rapids is another one of these kook-wad libtard dumbass parents who has no tolerance for common sense, or conservative opinions. This sissy wasted his own damn time writing a cry-baby letter to the district, because he’s a political MORON. The High School kids acted more adult than this turd.

  • Thomas Cox

    OMG, you mean the flag that represented the 13 original states is now racist? These are teachers and school administrators writing this drivel; I can only imagine what they are teaching the kids they are responsible for…unless the Superintendent’s letter is an example. It is unbelievable that today it is commonplace to call anything that offends people, “Racist,” and that we throw that moniker around as easily as we seem to use the “F” word these days. Do Americans know anything other than what they read in the media headlines today? Anything at all???

  • DemicratsArePoo

    To the over sensitive and under educated parents out there… that betsy ross flag that has your delicate feelings all bruised up, has never represented anything other than the will and determination of the people to rise up against tyranny, and forge a new country of free people protected by a constitution that gives them the right to be offended by anything and everything, and gives them the right to make outlandish claims in order to justify a ridiculous point of view. even if it mean completely making it up as you go. with out knowing it, due to your complete lack of fact gathering, or use of rational problem solving skills, you have done the very thing that flag actually represents… you exercised your right to free speech, your right to be a bad example to your children, your right to not actually know what you are talking about before you open your mouth, and let the nonsense roll out from it. that is what the flag represents, that is what our forefathers fought and died for. that flag that has you so offended is the very symbol that represents your right to be an ultra offended whiner.

  • Vic

    It’s amazing that there are actual educational “leaders” that believe that our American 13 star flag was racist. That is absolutely false. Please drop your PC agenda and learn the facts about our history before you teach our children. Just pathetic.

  • Richard Start

    Like Rio we were not the only country in history that had issues in dealing with slavery and at the time of our war for independence many countries still allowed some work or connection in this area. A brief search on line can uncover this truth. Our country ended slavery in 1965, Rio 1888, Apartheid ended in south Africa in 1976
    and finally the last country to end slavery was in Africa Mauritania in 1983.
    It is horrible that our country started off with this blight on it’s record while professing freedom but the only way to defeat the most powerful nation in the world at that time was to have all 13 colonies united and the only way to do that was to accept the existence of slavery which was established in our southern colonies as well as an accepted practice in the world at that time.
    Our Founding Fathers realized they needed to do something to address this and for those who look the evidence can be found in our Constitution and the Federalist Papers, a document of the arguments and discussions had while working out our Constitution! Maybe it is time that the Federalist Papers were also taught in high school so our young might fully understand our founding.
    These witch hunts for racist and bigots put me in mind of the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism and the relentless search for communist! Neither of those had positive out comes.
    Let’s go back to being people and working on the dream of Martin Luther King instead of this sky is falling panic approach to life that breads reasons to not like people.
    To learn more of other countries and times continue to read
    As a young man I enjoyed the books of Alexander Dumas author of the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo who it appears had an even more famous father in Napoleon’s Army. The son of French aristocracy and a black sugar cane slave girl from the islands who he loved, the author’s father rose the the rank of general in Napoleon’s Army, General Alexander Dumas. In the book The Black Count by Tom Reiss is the story of his exploits and how the French dealt with race relations from the sugar can fields to the streets of Paris then in the Napoleon’s Army in the Egyptian deserts. More can be found as the author includes his efforts to collect the manuscripts locked in a safe in a small town whose combination was known to the deceased clerk?
    there are so many more things to learn about black history then the fight for civil rights Bass Reeves Hi OH Silver