Chiles Principal Addresses Confederate Flag Incident

Posted at 5:30 PM, May 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-22 14:55:47-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) -- Joe Burgess, principal of Chiles High School, says there are "teachable moments" from recent incidents involving students at the school.

"We're a great school like the rest of the schools here in Tallahassee," he said. "We have the same issues. We have the same kids. They may look different, they may come different places at home, income, all that, but they're just kids at the end of the day, and we are blessed every day to have the opportunity to work with them."

In a sit-down interview with WTXL Monday, Burgess said he realizes students may not make the best decisions at times, but he's encouraging them to communicate with each other no matter what the situation.

As students at Chiles finish classes, they carry more than books on their backs: the school community lost two students and a teacher this year -- and now, they're dealing with an incident seen by many.

Last week, students were spotted waving Confederate flags in the parking lot.

"By [the] First Amendment, they are allowed to have that," Burgess said. "It is not in the classroom space; it's out in the parking lot."

Burgess said students have had flags on campus before, but warned them about their expressions becoming distractions.

"Once you see them organized in a certain kind of formation, it just looks different," he said. "So, it created a reaction from other students who did not like the flag."

Burgess ordered the flags removed for the rest of the year. Petitions sprang up online -- both supporting and opposing their removal.

Though the incident was non-violent, the school learned of a threat the next day. Burgess said the threat indicated harm to a campus resembling Chiles at a certain part of the day.

"That was enough for us to say, you know what, we need to just let them know and then make sure that we have extra security here on campus," he said.

Burgess said about half of students missed class with excused absences, but with it came a clear message.

"We're going to carry on," he said. "I'm not going to allow people who have ill intentions who are not people of goodwill disrupt what we do."

The recent spotlight on Chiles follows significant loss -- Reed Sellers, Davion Stephens and Maria Duran-Carpenter passed away this year.

"Our students are resilient. They are steadfast," Burgess said. "They've got great teachers who work with them who counsel them, who cry with them, who hurt with them."

Burgess said dialogue will educate and encourage these students no matter the situation -- lessons he wants them to remember as the year ends.

"You stay true. You don't listen to the nonsense, and you keep moving forward," he said.

Burgess told WTXL students who violated school policy during the recent incident were disciplined. He said the school may consider an assigned parking spot policy, but right now, he's focused on finishing the year strong.