CHARDON, Ohio — One week after a Chardon High School football player controversially carried a thin blue line flag onto the field during the team's season opener, hundreds showed up for a rally in support of police outside the team's home game against Willoughby South on Friday night.
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More than a thousand people gathered at Chardon Square to march to the high school to back the football players' right to carry the flag and show their appreciation for law enforcement.
"To see that the public cares about us, that means a lot to the officers," Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus said.
"I think that [officers] think they’re not liked and appreciated, but they are," event organizer Eric Downing added.
The event was organized on Tuesday afternoon, with Downing thinking he may get a dozen or so people to show up. He never imagined this many members of the community would come out or that the event would take on a little different meaning and tone after a Cleveland Police officer was tragically killed in the line of duty the night before.
The event was organized on Tuesday afternoon, with Downing thinking he may get a dozen or so people to show up. He never imagined this many members of the community would come out or that the event would take on a little different meaning and tone after a 53-year-old Cleveland Det. James Skernivitz was shot and killed on Thursday night while on duty.
"I think it really hits home why we’re doing this," he said. "You never know, when an officer leaves, you don’t know when he’s coming back."
The thin blue line symbol is associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, a display of unity among police officers in response to the national Black Lives Matter movement. Following the display, Chardon Superintendent Michael Hanlon enforced the district's existing board policy that "governs staff participating in perceived political activity."
"Given the turbulent times facing our country right now, this action understandably drew responses on social media and direct communications to district officials," Hanlon wrote in a letter to students and parents.
Hanlon's letter was met with no shortage of backlash, including from Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri, who called for the superintendent to resign. On Friday, Chardon High School announced it would be implementing a “Free Speech Zone” on the lawn in front of the school for Friday night’s football game, where people would be permitted to host the rally in support of police and other law enforcement officials.
A Black Lives Matter Protest was originally scheduled to also take place outside the school on Friday, but was ultimately canceled out of respect for Skernivitz. The organizer, a Chardon resident and Chardon High alum, said they are against all gun violence.
Meanwhile, the school board says the district has been meeting with players, coaches, and police this week to convey their support. In a statement, they say the flag isn’t banned from football games, however it is board policy that staff (in this case coaches) not participate in something that could be perceived as political. Those marching in Chardon on Friday night say the flag isn’t political and shouldn’t be perceived as such.
"This isn’t political," Spidalieri declared. "This is about our first responders protecting us and giving us our freedom."
However, Niehus says whether or not players can carry the flag when they take field doesn’t concern him. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that he still has a job to do.
"The school has a difficult job, and they have to take care of their rules and regulations," he admitted. "They’ve worked very closely with us, but my overarching goal in all of this is to make sure the football game came off tonight safely and we were able to have two peaceful rallies. So I’m very pleased with the outcome."