Chardon, OH – Over 1,000 people waved Thin Blue Line flags during a march to Chardon High School to show their support for law enforcement and for the football players who faced backlash for carrying the pro-police flag onto the field during a recent pre-game event.
The high school football players carried the flag onto the field on Aug. 28 in honor of their coach, who is also a law enforcement officer.
Chardon Local Schools Superintendent Michael Hanlon subsequently banned the pro-police flag from all school-related activities, WJW reported.
Hanlon said it is “understandable” that the player’s gesture “could be interpreted as a racially-motivated action,” but noted that he did not believe the student intended to offend anyone, according to WEWS.
“Based on discussions that ensued over the weekend, it does not appear that this action was motivated by racism, rather a show of support for one of our coaches who serves as a police officer, as well as for the first responders in our community who have developed a special relationship with our school and students in the wake of our school tragedy of February 27, 2012,” Hanlon said.
A 17-year-old Chardon High School student opened fire on his classmates in the cafeteria that day, killing three students and wounding two others, WKYC reported.
“Nevertheless, it is understandable how this could be interpreted as a racially-motivated action and, therefore, not acceptable in a school community,” Hanlon said of the Thin Blue Line flag, according to WEWS.
Over 1,000 law enforcement supporters marched from Chardon Square to the high school in solidarity with the Chardon football team and police on Friday night, WKYC reported.
“I think that [officers] think they’re not liked and appreciated, but they are,” event organizer Eric Downing told the news outlet.
Downing said he began organizing the march on Sept. 1, and that he initially expected around 12 people.
The day before the rally, 53-year-old Cleveland Police Detective James Skernivitz was murdered in the line of duty while working an undercover detail.
Downing said that Det. Skernivitz’s murder may have struck a chord with police supporters, who ultimately turned out in droves for the Chardon event.
“I think it really hits home why we’re doing this,” he told WKYC. “You never know, when an officer leaves, you don’t know when he’s coming back.”
Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus said that the department definitely felt the gesture of support.
“To see that the public cares about us, that means a lot to the officers,” Chief Niehus told WKYC.
Critics have alleged that the Thin Blue Line flag was created in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But the Thin Blue Line flag was created long before Black Lives Matter ever existed, and the term “thin blue line” has been popular with law enforcement officers since the 1950s.
“Thin Blue Line flags are just flags that express support for law enforcement. They have no direct connection to any Blue Lives Matter organization outside of their original meaning to show support for police,” The Police Tribune Editor-in-Chief, and Blue Lives Matter co-founder Christopher Berg explained.
Hanlon claimed that the pro-police flag is a form of political activity, which is not permitted under school district policy, WEWS reported.
“Our school is fundamentally anti-racist,” he said in the wake of the Aug. 28 pre-game event. “Our goal is to ensure that all students, staff and community members are provided the same opportunities to grow and learn in Chardon Schools and that this occurs in an environment that values the contributions of every school community member.”
He further noted that the pre-game display had a “significant impact” on the community.
“It will be important for us to use this as a learning opportunity to grow stronger as a school district,” Hanlon said.
The superintendent’s decision to ban Thin Blue Line flags was swiftly denounced by many members of the community, including Chief Niehus.
In a Facebook post on Sept. 1, Chief Niehus said that his officers appreciated the show of support demonstrated by the football team.
“This has been an incredibly difficult and challenging time for many law enforcement officers across the country,” he pointed out.
The Chardon Police Department (CPD) has worked closely with the school district since 1947.
In addition to establishing a crossing guard program and helping to fund the high school’s school resource officer position, CPD has also provided D.A.R.E. education to area students for over 30 years, Chief Niehus said.
“Our bond with the school system and Chardon students became even more intense in the wake of the school tragedy of February 27, 2012,” he wrote. “As a Police Department we appreciate the relationship that we have with the Chardon Local Schools including the administration, staff, and most especially the students.”
Chief Niehus acknowledged that the Thin Blue Line means different things to different people “based on a perspective that is unique to their own experiences with law enforcement.”
“To us, the thin blue line represents the strength and courage of officers working together as a profession to make our community safe,” the chief said. “We certainly recognize that we are blessed to live in a community that graciously supports the stressful job that law enforcement officers do, the very difficult situations that we respond to, and the many sacrifices that are made by our officers and their families.”
Chief Niehus said his department has received many phone calls and messages of support since Hanlon announced the Thin Blue Line ban.
“It’s most important that we don’t lose sight that the members of the Chardon Police Department equally serve all persons who require our assistance without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression,” he wrote. “When called upon we will respond. We will perform our mission as guided by our core values, and the principles of service, justice and fundamental fairness. That’s who we are, and that’s what our community expects of us.”
Meanwhile, Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri was so enraged about Hanlon’s decision to ban the Thin Blue Line flag, he wrote a letter to the school superintendent and demanded he resign.
“Words cannot explain the anger, frustration and disappointment I felt while reading your letter to community members,” Spidalieri wrote in the Sep. 1 letter to Hanlon. “Your letter sickens me and so many others that have reached out to me and expressed the same disgust with your inability to stand up and recognize [the students’] patriotism.”
Spidalieri, who served as a law enforcement officer for nearly 30 years, said he was “appalled” that Hanlon failed to recognize the courage the football team displayed.
“By honoring our first responders these young men expressed gratitude, care and love for our community and our country,” he declared. “That flag and that blue line represents and gives respect and honor to all of our men and women who risk their lives every day and those that have died while serving.”
Spidalieri also referenced the horrific school shooting, and noted that first responders ran into the building that day to render care and get students to safety “without hesitation or fear” for their own lives.
“To the Chardon football team, coaches, and parents on behalf of the great people of Geauga County and I – thank you and God Bless you,” the commissioner wrote. “As for you Mr. Hanlon you have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you do not carry the compassion, understanding and leadership quality that is required in your position.”
Spidalieri called on Hanlon to resign from his position “so that our young men and women can learn that your behavior will not be tolerated.”
He further pushed for the superintendent to be replaced by someone who has “core values of humanity, accountability, love of our country, and honor.”
Hanlon said on Sept. 1 that he has made it a point to “fairly and consistently” apply the school district’s policy regarding “political activity,” to include directing a teacher to remove her “Black Lives Matter” backdrop from her virtual classroom setting, WKYC reported.
Chardon Board of Education President Madelon Horvath said in a statement that the board fully supports Hanlon’s decision to ban the Thin Blue Line.
A Black Lives Matter protest was slated to take place outside Chardon High School on Friday, but it was canceled out of respect for Det. Skernivitz, WKYC reported.