Sampson County, North Carolina, was established in 1784 by Scotch-Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland attracted to its rich farmland and flowing rivers. Although centrally located and accessible to major area highways, Sampson County today is a quiet, rural community. Its 61,000 inhabitants, 18% of whom live under the poverty line, are engaged primarily in agriculture, raising hogs, poultry and agricultural products within the county's 950 square miles
Last week, a local Sampson County high school was thrust into the national limelight because of a ban against T-shirts with flags from any country, including the United States. The controversy revealed that this sleepy hamlet in rural America is grappling with issues typically perceived as the exclusive province of diverse, urban centers. With a controversy that mirrors similar conflicts in cosmopolitan, metropolitan areas nationwide, Sampson County may actually be a microcosm of the nation, rather than a last bastion of traditional, American values. The longing for communities holding fast to old-fashioned values may actually be wishful, anachronistic fantasies of nostalgic Americans. The reality, as indicated by Sampson County, is that small towns in the U.S. heartland and in rural areas like Sampson County confront the very same moral and cultural dilemmas that plague the rest of the country. Unfortunately, it appears these same communities fall prey to inaction and political correctness, just as in metro areas.
Sampson County hit the news in early September with a prominent story about the banning of flag T-shirts at the 600-student, Hobbton High School in Newton Grove. When high school senior Jessica Langston and a few other students wore American flag T-shirts to school to commemorate 9/11 victims, the school principal, Wesley Johnson, informed Jessica and her fellow students that they must change or wear their shirts inside out to comply with a recently enacted, flag clothing ban. No exceptions were to be made for 9/11 or any other observances or circumstances.
The ban arose after schoolyard fights occurred last year when students from rival Hispanic gangs wore soccer jerseys depicting flags of Latin American countries representative of their respective gangs. Not unlike farming communities across America where agriculture is the lifeblood, Sampson County relies on a significant number of Hispanic migrant workers, many of whom have questionable immigration status. The current population is 59% white, 29% black and 12% Hispanic.
To prevent an escalation of gang warfare and to maintain "a safe and orderly environment," Johnson implemented the flag ban. County school superintendent, Dr. L. Stewart Hobbs reasoned that, "If you allow one group to display that material, you have to let all groups."
Faced with criticism, Hobbs asserted that he is a patriotic American but added that the necessity to ban flags on clothing was due to the unwelcome presence of gangs in the Sampson County School District. Flags themselves are displayed prominently in the school under a district-wide policy requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily and American flags to be hung in each classroom and in front of the school building.
Predictably, when the flag ban made national news, the superintendent was contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union which issued a warning that the school's policy violates the First Amendment. The ACLU gave the school district until September 17th to rescind the ban on clothing with flags or risk a lawsuit. At a subsequent Sampson County school board meeting, Hobbs first suggested school uniforms as a workable solution and alternative to the existing ban. He later lifted the school ban entirely, explaining that a dress code exists at the county level and that individual schools are prohibited form instituting their own dress codes.
"From this point on, all dress code changes will be made at the school board level," Hobbs said, adding that the board will meet with school attorneys to discuss the issue further.
The gang problem is one that Sampson County has been fighting against for the past two years. The county sheriff's office noticed burgeoning Hispanic gang activity, particularly that of a gang known as Mara Salvatrucha-13 or MS-13. The gang's graffiti began appearing on abandoned buildings and equipment and tattooed youths bore the gang name. Further, break-ins and thefts of firearms increased, as did drug arrests, including an interception of 200 kilos of cocaine. Law enforcement personnel became aware that the middle schools are the prime target for gang recruitment. Gang murders have occurred in the surrounding area, including the Sept. 8 shooting of a 19-year-old alleged gang member killed by rivals wielding an AK-47.
Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton noted that the county was geographically well positioned for drug traffic because of its central location; its proximity to Raleigh-Durham, military bases and the port of Wilmington; and its site halfway between New York City and Miami. With no specially designated task force or gang experts or database, law enforcement has been stymied by this new development in their midst.
Further, they have been hesitant to pursue aggressive investigations, fearing the perception that police are targeting local farmers who depend on immigrant laborers for their livelihood.
It is not surprising that this formerly peaceful rural community has fallen victim to gang intimidation. What is shocking, however, is that the political correctness that has infected the rest of the country now holds sway here. Rather than deal head-on with the very real and dangerous problem of gang violence at school and in the community, Sampson County officials have dithered with dress code regulations and hesitated to conduct thorough criminal investigations. They have chosen, instead, to shield those that have broken laws by entering the United States illegally and to downplay their criminal activity. Instead of identifying and suspending gang members for fighting in school, all students are punished by a ban designed to "protect" them.
Further, all flags are viewed as equivalent in the face of tolerance dictated by political correctness. Instead of prominently displaying the national flag and punishing illegal behavior, students are denied an opportunity to express patriotism in their very own country on a day that threatened the existence of their nation and precipitated a war against the greatest threat to America since the Cold War.
Rescinding the ban against flag T-shirts is just one small step in the right direction. It now remains for Sampson County to aggressively take action and focus on the real problems confronting their community.