A group of friends at West Plains High School in Missouri handed out several pride flags at their school last week to show LGBTQ students that they weren't alone.
But later that day, other students responded by displaying a Confederate flag in the school cafeteria, sparking a contentious debate on social media that has roiled the small town of West Plains.
Students said that the Confederate flag incident was posted on Snapchat with this caption: "If they can fly their queer flags, others can fly their rebel flags. Butt hurt?"
Officials with the West Plains School District said last week that they were investigating the Dec. 9 incident.
On Monday, a district spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that they did not take disciplinary actions against any students and had chosen to deal with the incident as a "learning experience."
The West Plains School District's statement read:
Last week groups of high school students chose to bring banners to school, and while we respect student’s first amendment rights, however, we became aware the banners were used by some members of the groups to taunt other students, and that is not acceptable.
Rather than deal with this a disciplinary matter, we chose to deal with it as a learning experience. No disciplinary actions were taken. Our hope is to teach our students to respect each other and to respect different viewpoints on a variety of societal issues. Since that occurrence, rumors have sprung up from the most part from people who were not affiliated with the school district, but we want our community to know what the true facts are and set aside any rumors that are being heard.
(Lana Snodgras, a spokesperson for the school district, told BuzzFeed News that the "banners" referenced in the statement referred to both the pride flag and the Confederate flag.)
Two students who helped distribute the pride flags told BuzzFeed News that they have been receiving hateful online comments since local news outlets reported on the controversy.
"A lot of students don't have parents who support them," said Marianne, a 15-year-old sophomore at the school who distributed the pride flags along with a handful of others. "We were just trying to show that we're proud of who we are."
Taylor, another sophomore, said that her best friend, Rose Schilmoeller, had ordered 60 flags and they had decided to hand them out to whoever wanted them at school. "She wasn't trying to make anyone mad," Taylor, 15, said.
Schilmoeller told KY3 last week that some students stuck the flags out of their backpacks or just carried them around.
She said it was "a good way to show people that they're not alone."
But later that day, Marianne and Taylor said they were sitting in the seniors café at school when two or three unidentified male students displayed a Confederate flag in an apparent response to the pride flags.
"To us it was just like retaliation to people who were holding their own [pride] flags," Taylor said. "The worst part is that others were backing them up."
Marianne alleged that some students also used anti-gay slurs against her and her friends in the cafeteria. She said that some kids ran out of the cafeteria and called their parents to take them home.
School administrators soon intervened and took the flag away, according to students.
Luke Boyer, the assistant superintendent of the school district, told BuzzFeed News on Monday that the school recognizes students' First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression.
"But when it became a point of disruption, we had to eliminate the disruption and we simply asked students to put the banners away," he said. "It doesn't matter what the banner consists of."
He said that the whole incident had "been blown way out of proportion" and that there were several rumors instigated by social media that were "absolutely not true." He declined to say what the rumors were.
Screenshots from social media show news of the incident was widely shared on social media, often with anti-gay commentary.
Facebook comments on the incident ranged from people arguing that students should not focus on their "sexuality" in high school to others expressing support for the Confederate flag.
Taylor said that she didn't think punishing the students for displaying the Confederate flag would make a difference.
"They did it off of hatred in retaliation, but I don't think you can change their minds by giving them a punishment," she said. "Is it really going to do much? Especially because there are people who agree with them. They're not alone at all."