Colorado Geography Teacher Quits over Foreign Flag Dispute

Colorado Geography Teacher Quits over Foreign Flag Dispute
By Matthew Rothschild

August 26, 2006

Eric Hamlin got off to a rough start at Carmody Middle School.

In the very first week of class, he got a letter of reprimand and was placed on administrative leave, as the Denver Post reported.

And even though the school quickly reinstated him, he has decided not to return, he tells The Progressive.

In the very first week of class, he got a letter of reprimand and was placed on administrative leave for insisting on his right to display foreign flags in his classroom. And even though the school quickly reinstated him, he has decided not to return.

Hamlin was hired to teach world geography to seventh graders at the school, which is in Jefferson County, Colorado. For the past eight years, he says he has taught in that district.

He prepared his classroom by displaying the flags of Mexico, China, and the United Nations, as he has in previous classes without incident, he says.

But when Assistant Principal Victoria Winslow came into his class on August 21, the day before school was to begin, and saw the flags, she told him to take them down.

“That surprised me and caught me off guard,” he says. “I asked her why I had to take them down, and she said it was Jefferson County School District policy. I said I’d had the flags up before in Jefferson County, and if that was the policy, I had some issues with it. She left, and about an hour later she returned and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I was wrong. It isn’t district policy. It’s actually state law,’ and handed me a copy of a Colorado state statute.”

That statute says: “Any person who displays any flag other than the flag of the United States of America or the state of Colorado or any of its subdivisions, agencies, or institutions upon any state, county, municipal, or other public building or adjacent grounds within this state commits a class 1 petty offense.”

There is an exception in the statute for “a temporary display of any instructional or historical materials not permanently affixed or attached to any part of the buildings.”

Hamlin says he read the statute and noticed “the last part about the temporary display” for educational purposes and pointed that out to Winslow. “But she felt the flags seemed permanent and said again that I needed to take them down.”

A little while later, Principal John Schalk came to see him. According to Hamlin, he said, “I hear we’re having some issues with flag. You need to understand that you have to take them down. Now.”

Hamlin refused. “I told him I wanted to have the flags up so the students could observe them and reference them and ask questions about them,” he says. “He informed me I was insubordinate. I agreed with that. However, I told him I thought there was a bigger issue here. So he told me there would be further disciplinary action.”

Hamlin was allowed to teach on August 22, but at the end of the day, he was called down to Principal Schalk’s office. “He presented me with a letter of reprimand,” Hamlin says. If Hamlin wanted to return in good standing, the letter said he would have to agree to “not display any flag of any foreign nation,” Hamlin recalls. “And I had to receive administrative approval for any display I was putting up in my classroom.”

Hamlin says he told Schalk that he “could not morally comply” with those terms.

The next day, shortly after Hamlin arrived at school, Schalk handed him a letter placing him on administrative leave.

After the Denver Post and Huffingtonpost and other media outlets got a hold of the story, Hamlin met with some county and school officials to see if they could work out an agreement.

“What we eventually agreed to was that I would be able to have the flags up on a rotational basis, with 12 weeks being the longest, which is how I use the flags anyway,” Hamlin says.

But before agreeing to go back, Hamlin wanted to meet with the principal and other school administrators, which he did on August 24.

And he wanted to consult with other faculty members to see what the school atmosphere was like.

“I had my confidence shaken in the school administration’s ability to back me in certain situations,” he says.

The teachers he spoke with warned him that “a lot of people in the school don’t like what you’ve done, they think you’re trying to rip the school apart,” he says.

Hamlin says he asked for a day to decide what to do.

On August 25, he chose to leave.

“I came to the decision that it would probably be best for me, for the students, and for Carmody Middle School if I moved on,” he says.

Hamlin hopes to work for the district in one capacity or another.

“We’re looking into a possible transfer,” he says.

Hamlin says he bears no ill will toward Principal Schalk. In fact, he feels bad for him. “He’s getting just scathing e-mails,” he says. “Many of them are very unfair, calling him Nazi and things like that.”

“The principal thought it was a reasonable interpretation of the statute” to ask Hamlin to remove the flags, Lynn Setzer, executive director of communications for Jefferson County Public Schools, tells The Progressive. “The subject matter was longitude and latitude.”

For a while there, Setzer believed the matter was settled and that Hamlin was returning to class.

“He was cleared to go back to the class,” she told me on Friday morning. “From the district’s standpoint, the matter has been resolved.”

But that was before Hamlin decided not to return.

“We’re working to try to find him a new assignment based on his request, certainly not ours,” Setzer now says.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado ACLU, questions the validity of the state statute and the school’s interpretation of it.

“I have a hard time understanding how the state of Colorado’s interests are threatened by someone displaying a foreign flag in some state building,” he says. “Especially by a geography teacher using foreign flags as part of the instruction about different parts of the world.

The statute itself represents legislative overreaction to a nonproblem, and the principal’s decision was an overreaction to the statute.”