Chugiak High School administrators on Wednesday were investigating the display of the Confederate battle flag by a group of students in the school's hallway, according to an Anchorage School District spokeswoman.
The five students posed for a photograph with the large flag, which also had an image of "the Mudflap Girl" — the silhouette of a curvy woman — in front of an orange flame. Four of the students also held American flags.
A copy of the photograph provided to Alaska Dispatch News appeared to have come from a Snapchat account, and the text across part of it read, "If your (sic) offended … hah that sucks. That's your problem." The sentence was punctuated with an emoji of a middle finger.
A statement from the school district on Wednesday said Chugiak High administrators would speak with the students involved to "learn more about their intentions and discuss appropriate actions in school settings."
"Staff must balance the rights of students to engage in free speech with the right for all students to attend school in a safe environment," the statement said.
Heidi Embley, school district spokeswoman, said the district was first notified of the photograph by a news outlet Wednesday morning. She said the district believed the photograph was taken Friday and confirmed that it was of Chugiak students and was taken inside the high school. Chugiak High administrators would have to determine the circumstances around the image before deciding whether to sanction the students, she said.
"It could be punishable if it causes a disturbance in the school, or depending on the events surrounding the photo. Were students trying to organize a protest or was it just a quick photo? Were they blocking other kids from entering the school?" she said. "Obviously a lot of people find it offensive, but students also have a right to free speech so we need to toe that line very carefully."
Shannon Talley, a former Alaskan who now lives in Washington, D.C., received the photograph from a relative who has a student who attends the school. The student is African-American and "was absolutely terrified," Talley said.
"We don't have a problem with freedom of speech," said Talley, who sent the photo to Alaska Dispatch News. "What we have a problem with is that this is intimidating. There aren't that many African-American students who to go that school."
Talley added: "We want to know if there is going to be a conversation about this."
Chugiak High School serves about 1,180 students, a large majority of them white students and 22 of them African-American students, according to the most recent district data.
The issue of whether the display of a Confederate flag in public schools is protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech right has been raised in other states.
A high school principal in Indiana banned students from wearing or displaying images of the Confederate flag in October after students wore the flag draped around their shoulders. The principal declared the demonstration created a "substantial disruption to the educational environment," reported the Indianapolis Star.
The Miami Herald reported in November that Florida students were punished for bringing a Confederate flag to school on the day after the presidential election.
Joshua Decker, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said that while students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they get to school, officials can examine whether a student's behavior is disruptive and if so, stop it.
Decker said he saw the situation at Chugiak High as a chance to help students better understand the situation.
"I think this is a teaching opportunity and obligation of the school to really talk about why the Confederate flag is so horribly offensive and racist," he said.