Neptune Beach school bans police flag after controversy

Player started running with Thin Blue Line flag in honor of father who died last year

A Thin Blue Line flag is causing controversy at a Neptune Beach school, prompting leaders to ban it from the football field.

NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. – A Thin Blue Line flag is causing controversy at a Neptune Beach school, prompting leaders to ban it from the football field.

The Fletcher High School football team had been running onto the field with the pro-law enforcement sign since last year, but that stopped this week after complaints about the team’s use of the symbol.

The flag has been used in the Police Lives Matter movement and is sometimes used by people protesting against Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The debate over the flag’s meaning has increased recently with a rise in demonstrations against alleged social injustice.

The Fletcher Senators stormed onto the field with the flag for 11 games in the 2019 season and at last week’s game against Fleming Island.

Online posters accused the team of being racist for waving the flag while running onto the field before games.

One post read: “...Fletcher really out here being openly racist...”

Another said: “Thin blue flag shown at Fletcher High School game, a lot of students aren’t happy.”

School leaders said it was an administrative decision to prohibit its use after several complaints.

“It is all about my son’s love for his dad and his memory,” said Lorie Lavender, whose son, Caelen, started the ritual.

She said her son, a junior offensive lineman, started running with the flag in honor of his late father, Cpl. Andy Lavender. He was a Jacksonville Beach police officer and active in sports programs. He passed away unexpectedly in August 2019 after 29 years in law enforcement.

“He was one of a kind,” Lorie Lavender said. “And he is very much missed and loved.”

She said the display of the flag is neither political nor racist in her family’s eyes.

Banning the flag from the games is a bad call, according to Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona.

“This is a prime example where it was as innocent as can be, there is no politics involved, no us versus them, simply to honor a great man and allow his kids in the football team to honor him, and they have taken those, hijacked it and called it racism,” Zona told News4Jax. “And now the son and these kids are suffering because of it.”

Zona said Cpl. Andy Lavender was active in the community and coached some of the players, besides his son, from young ages when they were in Pop Warner programs. He said Cpl. Andy Lavender was well-liked and popular in the beaches community and a number of students wanted to honor him.

Zona shared his feelings on Facebook, getting hundreds of comments.

“The community is rallying around (the players) and trying to support their right to honor Andy how they want to,” he said.

Zona and other posters are encouraging people to buy tickets to Friday’s game versus Palm Coast and show up to support the Lavenders and the flag.

Lorie Lavender said she was disappointed by the school leadership’s decision.

“We’re dealing with it as it comes,” she said. “Will still pay our respects to Andy.”

She said she just wants her son to follow his heart in honor of his father.

Fletcher High School Principal Dean Ledford issued the following statement:

"It will always be my goal to ensure all students at Fletcher High School have the best possible educational experience to gain every opportunity for success beyond our school. A cohesive school culture in which students learn to shape and express their personal views is essential toward the accomplishment of that goal.

"Since last year, a young man on our football team has been allowed to memorialize his father by carrying a flag onto the field with the team during the opening ceremonies of each game. The flag, which is known as the Thin Blue Line flag, has different meaning for different people, and rather than representing the young man’s personal feelings, it was being interpreted as a political statement of the team and of the school.

"In consultation with the coaches, I determined that the act of using this flag in this personal way, while in the context of the football game opening ceremony, could easily be construed as representing a political position of our school and not just the personal feelings of the student and his teammates. Therefore, I have determined that it is no longer appropriate to continue. I am in conversation with the student and his teammates about ways they can appropriately express their personal views.

“As the principal of Fletcher, I greatly appreciate our School Police, Jacksonville Beach Police, Atlantic Beach Police, Neptune Beach Police and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for their work in protecting our school and our community. As a public school, we must take great care in maintaining an objective position on various political issues. Our action in guiding the student and his teammates to an appropriate way of expressing their personal views should only be interpreted as an action to maintain the school’s role as a venue for constructive dialogue, and not a proponent of any particular point of view.”

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.