Well, somebody's wrong in Stanley County. Monday evening, Pat Powers wrapped himself in a couple of rumpled flags to gin up patriotic fervor against an acquaintance's firing. The story ran that janitor Cesar Zakahi got fired by the Stanley County School District for posting photos of improperly stored flags, along with the name of the fellow custodian he held responsible for said improper storage.
While I find flag hysteria as distasteful as public prayer, my underdog sympathies initially wanted to jump on the bandwagon and lend some First Amendment support to Zakahi. But the details as first published seemed to add up to a case that the school would easily win on policy grounds. Mr. Zakahi was a new hire, still in his probationary period, subject to firing for pretty much any reason. By posting a complaint about a co-worker online, he appeared to have violated standard school complaint procedure. (Worth noting: Mr. Zakahi has since removed that damning complaint from his Facebook timeline.)
The Stanley County School District's tongues are tied by the preference not to discuss personnel matters publicly (although I will remind the school board that South Dakota's open meetings law says that you may discuss personnel matters in executive session, not that you must). But the superintendent out in Fort Pierre is putting it on the record that the flag wavers have the story wrong:
Stanley County School Superintendent Don Hotalling says a fired school custodian’s story of how he lost his job in Fort Pierre for posting photos of the American flag being treated disrespectfully is flat out “not true.”
“It’s a personnel matter and I can’t comment on it, but I will say it is not about treatment of the flag,” Hotalling said... [Lance Nixon, "Stanley County School Official Disputes Flag Desecration Story," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.05].
But what about those photos of rumpled flags?
“That picture is pretty nasty and I wholeheartedly agree,” Hotalling said. “All I can say is, whoever arranged that flag in that condition should be ashamed of themselves. But I have no evidence that it was one of our current employees” [Nixon, 2013.02.05].
Local folks don't seem too ginned up. Nobody but roving reporter David Montgomery attended the Stanley County School Board meeting yesterday. The only board action was to issue a statement reinforcing what Superintendent Hotalling said:
“The result of our investigation did not reflect a mishandling of either flag,” the statement says. “We question the circumstances surrounding this matter and whether the pictures currently circulating are an accurate reflection of how the flags were stored. Regardless, we have taken measures to ensure that each flag is properly cared for on a daily basis. The Stanley County School District does not now, nor has it ever tolerated disrespect of either flag” [Stanley County School Board, quoted by Lance Nixon, "Flag Incident Continues at Stanley County," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.06].
I'm disappointed that the school board feels the need to match the blogosphere in its emphatic assertions of patriotism, especially when they appear ready and able to make a case that their personnel action was not about patriotism but about policy.
It might not hurt to remind everyone involved that wrapping oneself in a flag is as disrespectful as wrapping it in a ball and tossing it on a shelf.
But we now have equal and opposite assertions. Mr. Zakahi says he's been fired for being a patriot. His former employer says that's not true. Somebody's telling the wrong story. We'll see if the high-powered lawyer Zakahi's Republican friends have gotten him will clarify or obfuscate the truth of the matter.