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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2007

Free discussion yields solution

One of our favorite news-room quotations, which we refer to often at The Enterprise, is from Walter Lippmann. "The theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussion," he said, "not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account."

A perfect example occurred on our pages this past month. We received a letter from a Guilderland High School freshman, which we published on March 8. He complained about his school flying the American flag at half-staff to honor a student who had died. He wrote that he was "greatly disturbed and angered by this violation of flag etiquette," that flying the flag at half-staff is reserved for the mourning, upon presidential or gubernatorial order, of designated government leaders.

We ran a story with the letter, as we often do, to cover all sides of an issue, or as many as we were aware of. We interviewed the letter-writer about his views and chronicled his family’s history of run-ins with the school district. We interviewed the school principal about his reasons for flying the flag at half-staff; it is part of the school’s crisis response team protocol, he said. We consulted the federal Flag Code and a national expert, from American Legion headquarters, on flag etiquette.

It looked like the choice came down to following protocol or showing compassion with a widely-recognized symbol; the letters, on both sides, which we received last week, reflected this. The school was chastised for repeatedly ignoring flag etiquette; the freshman was criticized for lacking human compassion.

But then we got a letter from George Christian of East Berne who brought new information — information we hadn’t been aware of — that could solve the problem. New York State Education Law authorizes school authorities to establish rules and regulations for the proper custody, care, and display of the flag, and the state’s Executive Law specifically authorizes a school district to make a regulation to allow the flag to be flown at half-staff to commemorate the death of a student.

We were as thorough as we knew how to be in our first story but a reader, with more information, shared in the community dialogue on our pages, getting us closer to the truth.

Barbara Fraterrigo, a Guilderland School Board member who heads the board’s policy committee, told us this week that Guilderland’s flag policy, adopted during the 2004-05 school year, follows the federal statutes. It was a format, she said, proposed by the New York State School Boards Association.

The school board is immersed now in budget review, Fraterrigo said, when asked about adopting a regulation to allow Guilderland schools to fly the American flag at half-staff. "I don’t see why it couldn’t be brought up as a matter of discussion," said Fraterrigo.

She said she liked the suggestions offered in our story by the American Legion expert — to honor a dead student by flying a school flag at half staff or by acquiring a black pennant.

While those measures may serve well in the interim — and we sincerely hope there is no need to use them — the American flag at half-staff is a more widely recognized honor.

It is best to discuss and decide on the regulation as a matter of policy when there is no death at hand. We urge the school district to pass a regulation so it will be able to honor students and staff as it has in the past and not offend those who are concerned with proper protocol.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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