(USA Today) -- When members of the student council at an Arizona high school organized a schoolwide "Redneck Day" and encouraged classmates to dress — and spoof — accordingly, they hoped to build school spirit leading up to prom week.
Instead, "Redneck Day" at Queen Creek High School has angered African-Americans and civil-rights leaders and touched off a debate about free speech, social stereotypes and good taste.
Tom Lindsey, superintendent of the Queen Creek Unified School District, said the only intent of Wednesday's event was to satirize the A&E reality TV show "Duck Dynasty," which follows a family of duck hunters and entrepreneurs from West Monroe, La.
But some students and their family members weren't amused. Among them: the Rev. Ozetta Kirby, pastor of Holy Trinity Community AME Church in Mesa and vice president of the East Valley chapter of the NAACP.
"I'm sitting here crying and praying," said Kirby, whose grandson Marcus Still is a 16-year-old junior at the school.
"This thing really got to Marcus," Kirby said. "When you're in 11th grade, that can break you down and make you feel at the bottom rung of the whole society, where everybody is being jubilant. No kid should have to go through that. We all know the connotation of 'redneck.' "
Most offensive to Kirby and others was that one student chose to wear a Confederate flag — for many a grim reminder of slavery and segregation.
"The Confederacy represents the horrible institution of slavery, and that is a direct attack on African-Americans," said Steve Montoya, a prominent civil-rights attorney in Phoenix.
The Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County NAACP, who grew up in the 1940s in the South, said: "Our community knows what that flag represents. ... A school is supposed to be for education and showing people where we come from, our history, and to try not to go back to some things."
Lindsey said the student wearing the Confederate flag was pulled aside by an assistant principal and asked to change his clothes.
"It was no ill intent," Lindsey said.
The student, who is from a state where the flag is more prevalent, did not see a negative connotation, the superintendent said.
"It was explained to him that in Arizona, we look at it differently," Lindsey said, adding that Redneck Day was mostly uneventful.
"We apologize to any people who, because of the word (redneck), were offended," Lindsey said.
Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said schools would do well to adopt the slogan of physicians: Do no harm.
"Do no harm to a student's sense of identity," she said. "Everyone should feel welcome."
Costello said she understands that Redneck Day was intended to bolster students' sense of feeling good about school but said "they've chosen an event that stereotypes an entire group of people, and under those circumstances, they should hardly be surprised that they also offend people."
She said a student wearing a Confederate flag could easily argue that he's "playing a role, and he doesn't mean it."
"But the flag is a very potent symbol," Costello said, "and the school facilitated that."
Costello said the school should do two things: "Open up a dialogue about why this was so offensive to some people, and second, to really start thinking through the kinds of events they sponsor to build school spirit."
She added that probably some students' families can be traced to the Appalachians, and "maybe they don't feel so great about being called rednecks."
Costello predicted that some who objected will be told they are too sensitive.
"I think every one of us hates it when we're told, 'Don't feel that way,'" she said. "But they are honestly offended by it. It reflects a very bad chapter in their personal or cultural experience. That needs to be acknowledged, discussed and accepted."
For his part, attorney Montoya said students have a First Amendment right to wear a Confederate flag and engage in free speech.
But he warned that the line between free speech and harassment is easily breached and said a district could be held liable for allowing a racially hostile education environment.
"Those schools are paid for by everyone, including African-Americans and other minorities, and they have the right to attend school free of harassment," Montoya said.
Montoya won a case more than a decade ago when he sued Tempe Union High School District on behalf of an African-American girl who had asked to read a text other than "Huckleberry Finn," which contains numerous instances of a racial slur.
Her request was denied, and students in Tempe began to use that book as a vehicle to racially harass the girl, Montoya said.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Montoya's client. He said it was the first case in the country to recognize a claim under federal civil-rights laws for a racially hostile educational environment.
"I wish the administrators good luck," Montoya said of Queen Creek school officials. "They have tough jobs."
This week in Kent, Wash., Sunnycrest Elementary School had scheduled "White Trash Wednesday," in which barbecue would be served on trash-can lids. The event was canceled Tuesday after parents objected.