JEFFERSON — More than a week after a Twitter post involving President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden spread through the community, school officials have met and are working toward a solution to the incident that involves the school’s principal.
School officials also clarified their stance on political expression on school grounds, saying they have allowed students to wear T-shirts or other clothing of a political nature and to display political flags.
The School District of Jefferson Board of Education did not take action immediately following a closed session meeting on a personnel issue Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s meeting came on the heels of Jefferson High School Principal Steve Dinkel being placed on temporary administrative leave as an incident involving a post he allegedly made on a private, non-school-affiliated Twitter account remains under investigation.
While Dinkel remains on leave and the investigation continues, Jefferson High School Associate Principal Richard Lehman is overseeing the school.
The issue came to the attention of the public when a screenshot of the post under Dinkel’s name was shared by a district resident who questioned why students had to take down Trump flags flying from their vehicles but the principal could post a meme on Twitter that showed President-Elect Joe Biden putting current President Donald Trump in a headlock.
The caption accompanying the meme, appearing to gloat over Biden’s electoral victory, read, “Who’s Sleepy now, b----?” a reference to Trump’s nickname for Biden, “Sleepy Joe.”
While the school board was not ready to take action on the issue during Tuesday’s meeting, in the meantime Jefferson schools Superintendent Mark Rollefson sent out a memo to district parents Tuesday clarifying the flag incident and the high school’s policy regarding political expression on school grounds.
The juxtaposed post from the community member, which was shared widely throughout the community and sent to area media outlets, seemed to suggest that students had been made to take down Trump flags they were flying from their trucks because of their political viewpoint.
The community member’s post read “so our Principal can do this [screenshot of political tweet content]” but “students cannot do this [photo of flagpole on truckbed with flags supporting President Trump].”
Actually, Rollefson said in his Tuesday memo, it was Associate Principal Lehman, and not Dinkel, who had asked a student to take down a flagpole with four flags on it standing upright in a truck bed parked near the school.
The upright, 30-foot flagpole was considered a safety hazard, and school officials feared that the pole, being top-heavy and secured only in a milk crate in the back of the truck, might topple in the wind and damage nearby vehicles.
Rollefson said he was informed of Lehman’s action at the time and supported it for safety reasons.
Rollefson also clarified some misinformation included in previous coverage, which stated that school policy banned political T-shirts, hats or flags.
In fact, this rule is not explicitly stated in any district or school policy, Rollefson clarified. The information originally cited had come from a Facebook post earlier in the fall which purportedly had come from the school district.
The post was couched as a “reminder” that T-shirts, hats, etc., advocating a particular political candidate or party were not allowed.
Rollefson told the Daily Union Tuesday that he was unaware of such a notice being posted on any district Facebook page, casting doubts on the origin of such a post.
Actual district policy allows students free expression of their support for any candidate or party, providing that expression is not racially discriminatory or discriminatory against a protected class.
“I want to clear the air in that our students’ freedom of speech is not (and has not been) taken away,” Rollefson said Tuesday. “We have allowed students to wear face coverings and T-shirts, and have flags on their vehicles supporting one candidate or another.”
Legal cases surrounding Freedom of Speech issues for students have upheld students’ right to drive to school with signs or flags such as the U.S. flag, the Confederate flag, flags supporting particular candidates, MAGA flags and flags supporting movements like Black Lives Matter.
However, if freedom of speech messages from students cause clear and evident disruption, legal precedent establishes that school districts have the right to tell students to no longer engage in such activity, Rollefson noted.
“Clear and evident disruption can be determined by fights, children afraid to come to school, (local) protest marches ... and other such disruptions to the learning environment,” Rollefson said.
Staff members, however, were informed early in the fall that they were not to wear T-shirts, pins or other items supporting Trump, Biden, Democrats, Republicans, “MAGA” or other political causes on school grounds or at school functions.
A Sept. 9 memo cautioned district employees: “Please understand that your freedom of speech comes under check when at work, when working with students, when using district-issued technologies, or when serving in the capacity of your job.”
In addition to clothing, the memo stated that the same rule went for posters, lessons and discussions at school, even presumably private conversations among staff members that potentially could be overheard by students.
The Sept. 9 memo advised district employees that, like every American, “You certainly maintain your freedom of speech rights when not at work, not working with children, not working in the capacity of an agent of the district, and not using district technologies.
“In other words, using your own personal social media or other such means is certainly your freedom,” it added. “If children happen to stumble upon your posts on social media, that is your right.”
However, the Sept. 9 memo cautioned against “friending” current students on social media.
In his memo to district families on Tuesday, Rollefson also brought up the issue of student protests, noting that school districts are not required to allow student protests.
“Our district traditionally has allowed them as long as they are peaceful,” Rollefson said. “... About two years ago, we allowed JHS students to peacefully protest their stance shortly after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Our high school students were organized, peaceful and returned to class without even being asked to do so.”
With past experience in mind, Rollefson said he decided to allow the protest Friday, Nov. 13, concerning the alleged Dinkel post.
The protest started in the high school parking lot, the superintendent said.
“The students had American flags raised and, to the best of my knowledge, one Trump flag on the back of a truck,” Rollefson said.
At some point, however, it appeared that a parent or other family member brought out some derogatory signs about a staff member.
“This is not the type of behavior we want to promote or endorse,” Rollefson said, stating that this crossed the line to “no longer peaceful.”
In response, Rollefson said he addressed the small crowd of about 18 to 20 individuals who had gathered for the protest, and he explained the district’s stance on peaceful protests.
“The students were very respectful and even thanked me for my time after I spoke,” Rollefson said. “I then asked them to depart from the parking lot at which time they lined up on the street and sidewalk instead.”
Since this is not district property, he then relinquished authority to the police department.
As to complaints against the alleged Dinkel post, Rollefson said the district has heard from many district residents who want Dinkel removed as principal because of the post he allegedly made on the private Twitter account.
On the other hand, the district also has received an outpouring of calls from staff, current students, parents, community members and former students “requesting the district lead with compassion and grace, taking into account Mr. Dinkel’s 30-plus years of dedication to public education marked by many successes,” Rollefson said.
“If you are looking for deeper information regarding the stance of the district’s investigation, at this juncture I am not prepared to comment,” he said.
, reiterating, “It would be very inappropriate for me to comment on this at this time.”
He has noted that the district is committed to a deliberate, thorough and fair investigation, and as such will not be rushing to action.