Keaau High causes social media backlash after telling students not to wear flags as clothing

  • Tribune-Herald A Hawaiian Kingdom flag flies over the Hawaiian camping area in Keaukaha in this file photo.
  • West Hawaii Today file photo Flags are mounted on a vehicles July 31, 2015, at Puukohola Heiau during Hawaiian Flag Day.

Officials at Keaau High School caused a stir online Monday after telling students not to wear Hawaiian Kingdom or Hawaii state flags on campus.

Keaau High School Principal Dean Cevallos said Tuesday that students have been advised not to wear the flags as an article of clothing. Some students, he said, have come to school with a flag worn about their shoulders like a cape or draped over their backpacks.

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“It’s about properly displaying the flag,” Cevallos said. “It’s just required by law, and most students we’ve had to talk to have been understanding about it.”

Proper flag display requires that the flag not be allowed to touch the ground, among other rules.

Cevallos said he thinks the prevalence of students wearing the flag is in response to the ongoing controversy surrounding the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea, adding that the flags were not a trend last school year.

The TMT controversy has expanded to a several-months-long standoff at Maunakea Access Road and a statewide pushback against historical disenfranchisement felt by the Native Hawaiian community.

Cevallos’ request for students to respect the flag led to outrage on social media. On Monday afternoon, posts on Facebook reported that Keaau High officials told students to not display the Hawaii state flag while at school. One such post, which attracted more than 200 comments and was shared nearly 50 times, claimed the school was banning displays of the flag outright because it is “affiliated with gang colors.”

“(If) the school tells our keiki they cant have anything with our flags on them then why does the school fly our Hawaiian state flag along with the American flag,” wrote Hokunani Faisao, an aunt of two Keaau High students. “What’s the difference. Both flags have the colors blue and red. What’s the difference.”

“A complete ban doesn’t keep anyone safe,” another comment read. “It just gives the perception that they chose one side over the other. I don’t think they realize that is what is happening by a decision like that.”

Other comments argued the prohibition is a violation of First Amendment rights and an attempt to erase Hawaiian culture.

Cevallos clarified Tuesday that he has no problem with students wearing clothes with an image of the flag, or with a state flag pattern on them — although he added that none of the T-shirts permitted by the school’s uniform policy have such images on them — and will only ask they stop wearing the flags themselves.

Keaau High School juniors Alia and Kalei Wong said most students have complied with the request. Alia Wong said security will ask an offending student to put away the flag, “but they’re not mean about it.”

However, security will take away a flag if a student has to be asked repeatedly. Alia Wong said some students continue to wear flags despite warnings from security.

“I’d be mad, too,” she said. “It’s our flag. You can’t tell us not to wear our flag.”

Kalei Wong said the prohibition includes the state flag and the Kanaka Maoli flag.

Other schools have not made such prohibitions.

Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area Superintendent Chad Farias said early Tuesday that he was unaware of any controversy surrounding student flag displays and that there is no blanket school policy prohibiting students from wearing the flag. However, he added, “uniform policy is uniform policy.”

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“I wouldn’t want to tell students not to show Hawaiian pride, either,” Farias said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.