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While Lowell’s bleachers were filled with American flag hats, T-shirts and bandanas because the student section had a “USA” theme, there also was a Confederate flag and “Make America Great Again” apparel in the stands when the Red Devils played a nonconference football game against Morton.

As the football coach at Morton, a school with a large minority population, Sean Kinsey believes the theme was more than just patriotic, and “definitely” had racist and political overtones.

“The kids made a certain decision,” Kinsey said. “We saw it from the time we were warming up. We saw at first just two Trump flags, and then we saw a Confederate flag closer to the game.”

The Aug. 31 game was eventually postponed because of lightning. But before Kinsey left the field, he asked Lowell’s athletic director, Patti McCormack, if the Confederate flag and President Donald Trump merchandise would be removed. Kinsey said his players remained poised in what he considered a hostile environment, but he still wanted someone to step in and help defuse the situation.

According to Kinsey, McCormack agreed and had the students take them down.

Tri-Creek School Corp. Superintendent Rod Gardin also was in attendance at the Aug. 31 game and confirmed that a Confederate flag was displayed.

“There was a Confederate flag that was brought to the game by a person who is not a student at Lowell High School or Hammond Morton,” Gardin said in an email to The Times.

Three male Lowell students brought merchandise supporting President Trump, according to Gardin, and those same students identified the person who brought the Confederate flag to the game as neither a student at Lowell nor Morton.

Gardin also stated that the students were not punished.

Lowell football coach Keith Kilmer said he was not aware of any issues with the student section until after the game. It was only brought to his attention when he logged on Facebook and read comments about what took place. At that point, he texted Kinsey to let him know that whatever happened in the stands is not reflective of himself or the Lowell football team.

“Our fans, our student section, and I think they’re great kids,” Kilmer said. “They’re very excited about the game of football, but there is a separation between our fans and our program. I just wanted him to know that we were there to play football.”

The following day, Lowell and Morton were able to play. The Red Devils shut out the Governors 38-0, but there were still issues with the student section.

Students also wore Trump gear to the Sept. 1 game. They were asked by a school administrator to take their merchandise off at halftime.

Gardin was volunteering at the Tri-Creek Education Foundation 5K race during the Sept. 1 game, so he was not there. But he confirmed that Carl Porter, the director of safety and security at Lowell, asked the students if they would remove the items.

Gardin said that the Trump merchandise wasn’t a violation of school rules, but that the final decision to have the students remove it was for safety. Lowell administration didn’t want the opposing sides to clash and take matters into their own hands.

Expression and safety: competing school concerns

Julie Slavens, the staff attorney for the Indiana School Boards Association, said that students do not lose their First Amendment right to freedom of speech when they’re on school property. However, she said, school administrators can still limit free speech if they think there is a clear possibility of that speech causing conflict and disorder.

This precedent was established by the Supreme Court after the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case in 1969.

“I think (Lowell’s administration) was just trying to alleviate any kind of potential disruption with respect to fights, shouting or words between the two sides,” Slavens said. “And they're perfectly within their rights to do that if they want to have an orderly activity.“

Slavens also explained that Lowell High School is a limited open forum. Since the high school is a government entity, its ability to dictate freedom of speech is not restricted to just students but also any other attendees of a school-sponsored event, including the person who brought a Confederate flag to the game.

“Again, it goes back to what will be disruptive,” Slavens said.

“While the extracurricular activity is on school grounds, and the school is allowing the public to attend, they still have the right to control the conduct of the patrons who are not students at games or any extracurricular activity on the school grounds.”

Gardin said he met with the three boys and their parents regarding the incidents and is confident they were not trying to be racist or offensive. He also made it clear they were not affiliated in any way with the person who brought the Confederate flag.

“The way they have been characterized in social media is wholly inaccurate,” Gardin said in an email.

Morton's Kinsey said he was not aware of any re-occurrence of issues while the Sept. 1 game was being played, but he was notified a few days later about the Trump gear in the student section. After learning what transpired and what steps were taken, Kinsey said he was satisfied with the Lowell administrators’ decisions in that moment.

Despite the conflict, Gardin said that no new policies will be implemented concerning what students wear to football games.

“The students want to be perceived well by others and work toward understanding how their actions may carry an unintended message,” Gardin said in an email.

“There hasn’t been a policy on student attire at games other than to treat yourself and others with respect. This will continue to be emphasized, and we know the students will be conscious of their choices.”

A teachable moment

Regardless of what went on in the bleachers, and how it made each side feel, Kinsey emphasized that he believed Kilmer when the Lowell coach expressed that those actions do not represent the Red Devils football team. Kinsey has known Kilmer for a few years now and described him as someone who is “resistant to some of that stuff.”

Kinsey thinks that what transpired goes beyond a football game and is emblematic of bigger racial and political issues that are present not only in Lowell, but also the entire country.

Kinsey said he has dealt with similar instances in the past and will use this one as a learning experience for his players. He said the Morton coaching staff takes pride in teaching its players — the majority of whom are minorities — how to react tactfully, rather than emotionally when they feel offended.

Both Kilmer and Kinsey denied requests to speak to their players.

Kinsey showed his players that the incidents at Lowell weren’t an excuse to become unprincipled, but instead a chance to reaffirm their character.

“I could have made a ruckus and been yelling at their ADs and stuff,” Kinsey said. “But I can have a conversation with those people and get the same conclusion.”