CHARDON, Ohio (WOIO) - Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri did not hold back in a letter regarding the Chardon Local Schools superintendent’s motion to ban the “thin blue line” flag from academic functions after student-athletes carried the pro-police symbol onto the football field.
“Your letter sickens me and so many others that have reached out to me and expressed the same disgust with your inability to stand up and recognize their patriotism,” Spidalieri wrote while calling for Superintendent Michael Hanlon Jr. to stop down from his position.
The controversy stems from a Friday night football game where Chardon High School players carried the “thin blue line” American flag onto the field when they faced Eastlake North High School.
Hanlon admitted in a prepared statement that the Chardon community “developed a special relationship” with law enforcement after first responders were called to the February 2012 high school shooting that left three dead and three others injured, but said the flag of pro-police sentiment is not acceptable at athletic contests because it can be “interpreted as a racially-motivated action.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Chardon Chief of Police Scott Niehus addressed the community with a message describing how the decades-long bond between the police department and students became even stronger in the wake of the school shooting on Feb. 27, 2012.
Chief Niehus also said the department recognizes how the perspective of the Thin Blue Line is unique to each person’s experiences with law enforcement.
“Last Friday night, in a show of support for one of their coaches who also serves as a police officer, and in recognition of first responders throughout our community, the Hilltopper football team carried a thin blue line flag onto the football field with them. Our officers appreciated the show of support demonstrated by the players, as this has been an incredibly difficult and challenging time for many law enforcement officers across the country.
In Chardon, we have enjoyed a special relationship with our schools that extends back to 1947, during the earliest days of the police department, and with Chief John Bohl. Chief Bohl loved children, and he understood the importance of maintaining a positive relationship between police officers and children. Chief Bohl is credited with starting a crossing guard program, and he was frequently found in the schools interacting with students. Over the years our officers have routinely interacted with our schools at all levels. We have provided Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) instruction to Chardon Students for over 30 years. Additionally, for the last eight years the City and School have collaborated to fund a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned to the High School. The SRO can also frequently be found in the Middle and Elementary Schools interacting with students. Our bond with the school system and Chardon students became even more intense in the wake of the school tragedy of February 27, 2012. As a Police Department we appreciate the relationship that we have with the Chardon Local Schools including the administration, staff, and most especially the students.
We recognize that the Thin Blue Line represents either the best of, or worst of, what our profession has to offer depending a person’s point of view. We understand that people frame what the line means to them based on a perspective that is unique to their own experiences with law enforcement. The officers of the Chardon police department strive to represent the best of what law enforcement officers should be. To us, the thin blue line represents the strength and courage of officers working together as a profession to make our community safe. We certainly recognize that we are blessed to live in a community that graciously supports the stressful job that law enforcement officers do, the very difficult situations that we respond to, and the many sacrifices that are made by our officers and their families.
This support is evidenced by the numerous telephone calls and messages of support that we’ve received over the last 24 hours, and the hundreds of positive comments about law enforcement that have been posted on social media regarding this situation. It’s most important that we don’t lose sight that the members of the Chardon Police Department equally serve all persons who require our assistance without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression. When called upon we will respond. We will perform our mission as guided by our core values, and the principles of service, justice and fundamental fairness. That’s who we are, and that’s what our community expects of us.”
Later on Tuesday night, the Chardon Board of Education President Madelon Horvath released the following statement emphasizing their support for the Superintendent and the district’s policy that prohibits political speech by staff members “does not diminish the District’s support and appreciation for police and all first responders.”
The Board of Education also said they agree with Chief Niehus’ statement that the Thin Blue Line flag can take on different perceptions.
“Chardon Local School District values and respects the police and all first responders. Our relationship with our local officers is stronger than most, given their fast response and the bravery they demonstrated on February 27, 2012 and in the aftermath of that tragedy. We greatly value our partnership with local law enforcement and first responders. We agree with Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus’ statement that the Thin Blue Line flag is perceived differently by different people. For some, it has political meaning.
The Chardon Board of Education would like to make it clear that we are in full support of Dr. Hanlon’s and the Administration’s decision regarding the football team’s display of the Thin Blue Line flag on the field at last week’s football game. Because it was displayed as part of a pre-game ceremony under the supervision of school staff, it was construed as sanctioned by the school district. Political activity by staff members is not allowable under Board of Education policy.
Our support for Dr. Hanlon and the District policy prohibiting political speech by staff members does not diminish the District’s support and appreciation for police and all first responders.
We understand that the team’s intent was simply to support our community first responders. We also understand that this action evoked immediate concerns from some members of our local community.
The Chardon Board of Education respects and values all points of view and has a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students. The Administration’s decision regarding this event, and the directive to have a teacher remove a “Black Lives Matter” backdrop from the virtual classroom, are both in keeping with district policy.
Dr. Hanlon and our administrators have been working tirelessly all summer to make sure our students and staff are able to come back safely to school. There was considerable concern that our athletes would not even be able to play at all, but they are playing and we are doing everything we can to make this school year successful. It is our hope that the community will understand both our obligation to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students and our dedication to handling this situation in keeping with school policy.
Thank you for your understanding of this sensitive issue.”
19 News will have more on this developing story throughout the day on Tuesday.