AUSTINTOWN — Protests against racism and for social justice have prompted a debate among Austintown students and community members about a familiar fixture — the Confederate flag in Ron Johnson’s eighth-grade history classroom at Austintown Middle School.
Dueling petitions for and against Johnson's right to display the flag in his classroom have already had an effect: School officials said the flag was removed last week.
Less than a week ago, a petition was circulated at change.org accusing Johnson of racist comments and complaining about his Confederate flag, which many believe is a symbol of slavery and racism.
The petition has gathered nearly 2,800 signatures and demands Johnson’s removal.
This mirrors a national debate about the significance of the Confederate flag, which was reignited when 21-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshippers at a Charleston church in 2015. After the massacre, photos were discovered of Roof waving the Confederate flag, calling for a race war.
In 2015, the flag was banned from sale at the Ohio State Fair. In April, the Marine Corps banned the public display of the flags, saying the symbol had “the power to inflame division.”
The change.org petition argues Johnson’s flag display is not the only evidence of his fascination with the Confederacy. It claims Johnson created a Facebook profile using the name Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a Confederate Army general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; he led the Confederate Army in the massacre of African American Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864.
When Madena Mitchell’s son told her about the flag hanging in his teacher’s classroom, she told him to take a picture of it. Seeing the flag makes her son — a young black man — feel isolated and unworthy in Johnson’s classroom, she said.
“In the classroom, there are different personalities, different ethnicities, different beliefs. Just stick to history. That’s it,” said Mitchell. “You’re either installing fear in those kids [who] want to speak up … or you’re emboldening those that are prejudiced and they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
In the aftermath of the death of 42-year-old George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Mitchell worries symbols like the Confederate flag plant the seeds of racism in young students.
She signed the petition and supports Johnson’s removal.
Austintown Superintendent David Cappuzzello defended Johnson and categorized his behavior as typical of a history buff. He told Mahoning Matters that the flag was taken down last week.
“If you do the history and if you do the research on it — I just got a little bit of a lesson on it, too, and I’m doing my research on everything as I’m looking into all this information I’m getting — that’s a battle flag. The flag everyone should be upset with is the, just the plain red and white one,” he said.
The petition does not paint the full picture, said Cappuzzello.
“I’ve talked to principals. I’ve talked to the old superintendent there. Nothing has ever come about, any kind of problem with Mr. Johnson,” said Cappuzzello.
Yet, during her time as a student teacher in Johnson’s classroom in fall 2018, Diana Bodrogi-Podoaba — who is now a substitute teacher in West Virginia — said she believed the few black students in Johnson’s classroom were disciplined more quickly and with more frequency.
About his classroom, she said, “It doesn’t feel like an inclusive environment.”
In response to the petition and the mounting outrage, fans of Johnson created a second petition — which had more than 1,100 signatures last night — disputing his support for the Ku Klux Klan.
“Mr. Johnson has also not done any wizardry stuff that a grand wizard in the Klan would do, and there are no claims he burns crosses in his classroom. So their claims he supports the klan is blasphemy,” the petition reads.
When Mahoning Matters spoke to Cappuzzello, he brought up a supporting comment from a student of color.
“There’s many African American kids that are saying, 'Best teacher ever,’” he said. “You have people of color and of not color reaching out to him saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Johnson’s supporters claim the flag is historical and appropriate for display in a history classroom.
One of those petition signers, Amy Sopko, an Austintown graduate and mother of two Austintown Fitch students, serves on three parent forums and said she’s never heard a complaint about Johnson.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Sopko. “This whole Black Lives Matter movement is pushing people, and this pandemic and everybody’s locked in their houses and everybody’s just getting a little bent out of shape. So you’re saying every flag that doesn’t belong to the United States needs to come out of his classroom? Because our history goes way back. I mean, if you want to say you’re going to remove the Confederate flag from his class, then you may as well remove every other flag. You don’t hear any other ethnicity complaining about any war or anything that we’ve dealt with.”
Both Sopko and Cappezzullo pointed to the fact that Johnson had been profiled in May by WFMJ for “bringing history to life.”
This isn't the first case of the flag causing an outcry in an Ohio school.
In 2001, a white, Cleveland-area teacher who hung a Confederate battle flag in her classroom was transferred to another school following public outcry.
Rebecca Segetti, who is white, was a history teacher at John Hay High School in 2001, when the city school district enrolled predominantly African American students. She sued the Cleveland Municipal School District in March 2002 for discrimination and free speech violations. The case was settled four months later.
A school janitor — who is African American, according to the Associated Press — reportedly removed the flag from the classroom while Segetti was away and turned it over to administrators, “because he was offended by it,” Segetti’s complaint reads.
It’s unclear whether school policies changed following the 18-year-old suit.
School district spokesperson Roseann Canfora on Monday researched the district’s policies to find specific rules about use of the Confederate flag, but didn’t find any. The case was resolved long before the district brought on Canfora and several other administrators whom she questioned Monday.