Lake Arrowhead, a cluster of six unincorporated communities in the San Bernardino Mountains, is a long way from Dixie. Which is why the display of Confederate battle flags in a school parking lot there, confused parents such as Jennifer Celise-Reyes. It was the morning of Aug. 16, the first day of school, and Celise-Reyes was dropping off her teenage daughter for the start of her freshman year at Rim of the World High School in Lake Arrowhead. 

Since Aug. 16, these flags, staked into the beds of several pickup trucks, have been parked in the same parking spaces in the school's lot nearly every day. Each truck displays two flags: the Confederate battle flag and the American flag. Celise-Reyes says seeing the display of stars and bars outside the school is now an everyday occurrence. The display has sparked heated debate throughout the community while also bringing to the fore a simmering racial tension that few outside of this largely white community knew existed.

A statement issued on Tuesday by the ACLU of Southern California highlighted the thorny issue of tolerance versus free speech. The group acknowledged that displaying the flag is protected expression under both the California and U.S. Constitutions. But it prefaced its legal opinion with a strong objection to the flag as “a symbol of hate and intolerance, which celebrates a war fought to keep people in bondage and terrorizes the descendants of the enslaved.” It encouraged the school district to use the controversy as an opportunity to teach students about the racial divide in the country. 

Administrators at the Rim of the World Unified School District have heeded the legal standard in California that gives students the same free-speech rights on campus as adults have in any public space. But parents and other students at Rim of the World High School, and one school district official with firsthand knowledge of the situation, say the daily display of the Confederate flag has taken on a life of its own, fueling a climate of acrimony and racial bullying both on and off campus. 

“I understand free speech,” Celise-Reyes says, “and if it were just about that, then we wouldn’t have a problem. But the students, I guess they’re feeling empowered, they’re using that Confederate flag as something to antagonize their negative behavior toward other kids.”

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2014 prohibiting state agencies from selling or displaying items bearing the Confederate battle flag. But legal experts believe the law does not apply to private individuals, such as students at a public high school.

A year after the law was enacted in California, state officials in South Carolina removed the flag from its capitol building not long after nine African-Americans were shot and killed at a prayer group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. Also in 2015, Virginia's governor banned the flag from state license plates, while Alabama's governor ordered the flag removed from state grounds. 

More than 1,100 students attend Rim of the World High School. About 62 percent are white and about 30 percent are “Hispanic or Latino,” according to district records from the 2015-16 school year. There were also 10 African-American students, nine Asian students, two Filipino students, one Pacific Islander and an additional 56 students who identified as being of two or more races. 

Lawrence King, the district's associate superintendent, said those numbers haven't changed much, if at all. According to King, the administration has met with 10 students and parents about the flags, and the parents of the students displaying the flags have been generally supportive of their children. King praised both sides in the disagreement for maintaining a civil tone.  

The argument has been a bit more freewheeling on social media, specifically on two Facebook groups popular with residents of Lake Arrowhead. In one post, the father of one of the students displaying the flags referred to locals opposed to his son's actions as “peace-loving pansies.” Multiple Facebook users who identify themselves as parents of Rim students allege that racial bullying at school is an issue that runs deeper than the Confederate flags at the parking lot.

One account that initially surfaced online and was later confirmed to L.A. Weekly by a school official describes a group of students at the school who are known to paint the letters “WP” on their chests, which they expose to other students in the school while shouting “white power.” The official, who has asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions from the administration, also claims to have knowledge of a fight that occurred at the school on Tuesday. The fight allegedly started after a male student wrapped himself in the Confederate battle flag. 

King, along with Rim's district superintendent Dr. Giovanni Annous, acknowledged in a statement that one student was recently suspended from the school “for using language that was racially or ethnically offensive or charged.” But the administrators, citing privacy concerns, would not say if the student shouted white power or if he had the letters “WP” painted on his chest.

Reached for comment on the school fight alleged to have occurred on Tuesday, King confirmed that the administration had been informed of an “issue” but declined to give specifics, citing privacy concerns. He did dispute the claim that there was a fight involved. “I can share that no physical altercation took place,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2014 prohibiting state agencies from selling or displaying items bearing theConfederate battle flag, but legal experts including the ACLU of Southern California believe the law does not apply to private individuals.; Credit: Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2014 prohibiting state agencies from selling or displaying items bearing theConfederate battle flag, but legal experts including the ACLU of Southern California believe the law does not apply to private individuals.; Credit: Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Guerrero is one of the students who has been displaying a Confederate battle flag from his truck bed at school. Guerrero, a junior at Rim, told L.A. Weekly that he has been politicized by the Donald Trump presidential campaign but that he is not a racist, and that he and his friends were not involved in any acts of racial bullying at the school. Of the accounts of students engaged in racial bullying on campus, he said, “I have no idea who those people were.” 

Guerrero's mother, Alicia Baca, likewise denied her son was involved in racial bullying. “My son doesn't shout 'white pride,' he is a Hispanic, so yelling 'white pride' would sound strange coming out of his mouth,” Baca wrote on RimRants, one of the local Facebook groups. Multiple sources consulted for this story said the flags in the parking lot were correlated with the act of racial bullying at school, but were unable to confirm that the same students were involved. 

One Facebook user, however, wrote that a boy in the back of a truck displaying the flag has been yelling “white power” at people walking outside a Mexican restaurant in the area. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate groups nationwide, has identified some active white supremacist groups in San Bernardino County, but they are typically in the flatlands to the south. Gilbert Flores, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Twin Peaks station, said that the mountain region, where Lake Arrowhead is located, has had instances of individuals who are associated with a hate group, and mentioned a recent case of individuals who hanged sheriff's deputies in effigy earlier this year. 

But the Sheriff's Department has not received any recent reports of racially motivated crimes in the Lake Arrowhead area, Flores said. There was a recent political dispute that turned violent  outside a local grocery chain. On July 28, a group of high school–age boys was hanging around two pickup trucks parked in the lot — one displaying the Confederate and American flags in back, the other the Confederate flag and a “Donald Trump for President” flag. 

Passer-by Kenard McLaughlin, 67, of Cedar Glen, confronted the boys, and the exchange grew so heated that McLaughlin was arrested and booked for allegedly trying to run them over with his vehicle, a charge he denies. A bystander, possibly one of the boys in the group, had a concealed-carry permit, and this person withdrew a pistol from a holster on his side and pointed it at McLaughlin, which caused him to stop.  

A spokesman for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office said the case was turned down, pending further investigation. Jacob Guerrero said that one of his friends who flies the Confederate flag at the high school was present during the altercation, but that he himself was not. 

On Tuesday, the boys removed the flags on their own from their trucks. “It’s probably because we’re kind of scared about what’s going to happen to our vehicles or what people are going to try to do,” Guerrero said. But he says the removal of the flags isn't permanent. Asked if he had reconsidered his actions in light of the ensuing controversy, he said he had not.  

Parents and the school official consulted for this story say they worry that if the flag issue continues to fester, it will embolden a fringe element of students to antagonize the peers who don't agree with them.  

King, the associate superintendent, said, “We will continue to monitor the situation, to work closely with local law enforcement as needed, and work expeditiously to immediately resolve matters that are brought forth to our attention.”

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