NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. — A father’s tribute – now mired in controversy.
For more than a year, a Fletcher High School football player memorialized his father at every game by carrying a police remembrance flag onto the field.
This season, the flag has been banned – with school officials saying it’s become a political statement that doesn’t represent the team -- or the school.
“[Jacksonville Beach Police Corporal Andy Lavender] was a staple in the community loved by everybody, served with honor and integrity [for 29 years]," Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona said Lavender deserves to be remembered.
“He coached so many kids, his own sons included. Many, many of the kids that are on the Fletcher football team now, Andy was involved in,” he explained.
However, a post criticizing the football team’s runout ritual made its rounds on social media.
“There is nothing political about this. There's nothing racist about this," Zona said.
Lavender’s son began memorializing his father with a thin blue line flag.
In August, the officer’s life was also honored in the Inaugural Andy Lavender Memorial Beach Run -- but, the school says, the practice at Jack Taylor Stadium must end.
“It has been used racial discrimination against the black community, to put fear into the black community," local Black Lives Matter movement leader Tanisha Crisp said.
Through her own experience, she explained how the flag has become, for some, a symbol of white supremacy.
“Myself, the Black Lives Matter 5K team -- we've had threats, personally, on different news articles where people said that they would bring the Blue Lives Matter flag," Crisp said. "And they would hold rallies, and they would yell at us, and they would say racial slurs."
Duval County Public Schools issued the following statement from Fletcher High School Principal Dean Ledford:
"It will always be my goal to ensure all students at Fletcher High School have the best possible educational experience to gain every opportunity for success beyond our school. A cohesive school culture in which students learn to shape and express their personal views is essential toward the accomplishment of that goal.
Since last year, a young man on our football team has been allowed to memorialize his father by carrying a flag onto the field with the team during the opening ceremonies of each game. The flag, which is known as the Thin Blue Line flag, has a different meaning for different people, and rather than representing the young man’s personal feelings, it was being interpreted as a political statement of the team and of the school.
In consultation with the coaches, I determined that the act of using this flag in this personal way, while in the context of the football game opening ceremony, could easily be construed as representing a political position of our school and not just the personal feelings of the student and his teammates. Therefore, I have determined that it is no longer appropriate to continue. I am in conversation with the student and his teammates about ways they can appropriately express their personal views.
As the principal of Fletcher, I greatly appreciate our School Police, Jacksonville Beach Police, Atlantic Beach Police, Neptune Beach Police and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for their work in protecting our school and our community. As a public school, we must take great care in maintaining an objective position on various political issues. Our action in guiding the student and his teammates to an appropriate way of expressing their personal views should only be interpreted as an action to maintain the school’s role as a venue for constructive dialogue and not a proponent of any particular point of view."
Zona said if the flag representing police can’t be on the field, there will be plenty of support in the stands. He said people at the game will be wearing clothing showing their support for officers and waving signs that say “I know Andy.”