For those of you who don't know, Oceanside, California adjoins Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton--one of our country's finest military installations and home to thousands of deployed Marines and their families. Oceanside is a very patriotic town due to its military ties, thus the events described in the last few paragraphs of this article are very upsetting to those around here!

Flags become symbols of polarizing protest

By: PAUL SISSON and PAUL EAKINS - Staff Writers

When student protesters waved Mexican flags in the streets Monday, they did so as an expression of solidarity and shared cultural history.

But as the week of protests comes to an end, signs are increasing throughout the region that flags are becoming the preferred symbol of a cultural clash between white and Latino students.

When protests started throughout North County on Monday, Mexican flags were often seen as students walked off campuses to protest pending federal immigration reform legislation.

But, as the week moved along, reports surfaced of school administrators removing American and Mexican flags from classrooms in Oceanside and Escondido.

Flags, American and otherwise, have always been a part of protest in America. For example: In 2000, thousands of Americans who came to America from Cuba carried giant Cuban flags through the streets of Miami in protest of the government's treatment of the young refugee, Elian Gonzalez.

Maria Fernandez, 16, a student at Orange Glen High in Escondido, who said she was one of the organizers of this week's protests, said Mexican flags weren't intended to be anti-American.

"The reason for the (Mexican) flags wasn't to isolate ourselves from the United States. The reason for the flags was to show people where each of us came from," Fernandez said, noting that a flag from El Salvador also was displayed.

She said there has been a lot of confusion about protesters' use of the Mexican flag, and she has had to give this explanation to many students, teachers and community members since the demonstrations.

"We didn't disrespect the American flag at all," Fernandez said.

But at El Camino High School in Oceanside, senior Alicia Tijon, 18, took an opposing view.

"They don't even understand it," said Tijon, who protested on Tuesday and was angry that her classmates put the Mexican flag before the Stars and Stripes.

"I am Mexican," Tijon said. "It's not about Mexico."

American flags come to class

After seeing Latino students carrying Mexican flags throughout North County, white students responded by bringing American flags to school.
In Oceanside, a 13-year-old student at Roosevelt Middle School said school administrators refused to allow him and several other students to carry American flags around campus and post pictures of American flags around the school in a show of patriotism.

Reilly Chase ---- whose grandfather, James Chase, was one of the founders of the California Minutemen that continue to watch for illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border ---- said he and friends formed a plan early in the week to wear patriotic clothing, carry flags and paint their faces red, white and blue on Thursday, after seeing protests Tuesday in which students waved Mexican flags to rally against proposed immigration reforms in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Reilly said that when he and others attempted to show their flags and hold a patriotic rally during lunch, the flags were seized and he was escorted to the school office.

Roosevelt administrators could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Vista Unified's interim superintendent, Darrel Taylor, said Thursday night that he had not heard about the alleged incident, but that Roosevelt Principal Raiford Henry had been in a meeting with Taylor and other district principals from noon until about 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

In Escondido schools, one principal asked a student to put away an American flag, and another told students and staff that no patriotic displays of any kind could be shown this week.

Bear Valley Middle School Principal Julie Rich made a temporary rule Wednesday barring "flags, signs, symbols of any country" after a conflict Tuesday between students with Mexican flags and students with American flags, she said.

"It just sparked some high emotions," Rich said.

The decision was made "to preserve the safety and calmness of our campus. We're dealing with a real sensitive and emotional issue," she said.

Among those told not to wear clothing with flags or other symbols was a teacher who was wearing a tie with a flag on it, she said.

Rich said the teacher and students seemed to understand the reasoning behind the decision, and she said she hoped the policy wouldn't have to continue next week.

The teacher who had worn the tie didn't return phone calls Thursday, but the mother of a Bear Valley student who contacted the North County Times on Wednesday said she was upset about the rule.

The parent, who said she didn't want to be identified for fear that her son might face retribution at school, said her son was told at school Wednesday that he couldn't wear red, white and blue clothing, as several mostly white students had planned. Rich said Thursday that the color of students' clothing wasn't an issue.

The student's mother said safety is important, but so are personal freedoms.

"I understand the point, but they're going about this in the wrong way," she said. "I'm concerned about the safety, I'm concerned about the Hispanics being the only ones having the voice and the rights. ... I think it's taking away our own rights. Taking away our rights is not helping anything, and I think it's going to put a bigger wedge between the two groups."

Across the street at San Pasqual High School, Principal Martin Griffin asked a student to put away an American flag Tuesday that the student had draped across his shoulders. Contrary to rumors that had circulated at the school, Griffin didn't forcibly remove the flag, he said.

"We had a student who was wearing it like a cape, and I asked him not to do that," Griffin said. "If people are doing things that are trying to incite issues, we'll talk to individuals."

He said he hadn't made a rule against flags or other patriotic symbols, but he did want to reason with students and discuss whether taking a flag to school was really helping the situation in light of this week's protests about immigration issues.

"Usually by having that discussion, the kids do the right thing" and put the flag away, Griffin said."

Issues of free speech

Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties, said Thursday that ordering students or teachers to put away flags can tread on rights of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Keenan said the law does allow school administrators to restrain free speech if it is deemed libelous, obscene, slanderous or if it "creates the immediate danger of causing students to commit an act that's unlawful or in violation of school rules or that would cause a substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

He cited the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 as precedent.

In Tinker, the school district suspended students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court found that suspending the students amounted to restraining the free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

"It seems to me that bringing or wearing a Mexican flag or an American flag is comparable to wearing a black armband," Keenan said.

An American flag vandalized

When students first marched in Oceanside on Tuesday, Keith Brentlinger, co-owner of the Hatter, Williams and Purdy insurance company on Mission Avenue, said Latino students destroyed an American flag that the business keeps on its storefront.

"They just bent the flagpole and ripped the flag," Brentlinger said.

He added that the business put out a new flag Thursday.

"Some kids stole it just this morning," he said.

Brentlinger said the insurance company has always kept an American flag on display.

"It honors and acknowledges our troops we have in Iraq now, and it is a symbol that we are proud to be Americans," he said.

Watching students protest for the right to remain in America, Brentlinger said he was surprised that protesters focused so intently on Mexico and the Mexican flag while largely ignoring the American flag.

"By and large, it is very insulting to have people shouting 'Viva Mexico' because they want to be in America," Brentlinger said.

Staff writers Melanie Marshall and Louise Esola contributed to this story. Contact staff writer Paul Sisson at (760) 901-4087 or