JAFFREY — Two students’ display of a flag associated with white supremacy at a Conant High School pep rally two weeks ago prompted an investigation into the incident by school officials.
The flag, which is known as the flag of “Kekistan,” represents a fictional country that has “existed” for several years, but has increasingly been used by white supremacy groups as a symbol of hatred and racism, Jaffrey-Rindge school district Superintendent Reuben D. Duncan said in a letter sent to parents Friday.
But in an interview with The Sentinel, Duncan said the students who held the flag up at the Sept. 22 homecoming pep rally weren’t aware of its hateful connotations.
“To the two students who were raising that flag, it was a joke or, a meme that was made for a select group of people who would understand that in the crowd of 400 students,” he said.
Photos of the incident on social media show two teenage boys holding up the green flag as one of the boys raises his fist. A large white circle on the left-hand side of the flag displays four “K”s surrounding an “E.” Duncan said the flag was held up for between 10 and 15 seconds.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said the flag mimics a Nazi war flag and stems from Kek, a satirical religion forged on the Internet surrounding a frog-headed god. Kek is used by white nationalist groups to mock political correctness, liberals and “self-righteous” conservatives, according to the center.
Kek is also associated with Pepe the Frog, a viral image, or meme, that’s been on the Internet for years and has recently become an avatar for the Kek god. Pepe the Frog first appeared in 2005, in an online cartoon called “Boy’s Club,” but the Anti-Defamation League declared it a hate symbol in September 2016.
The majority of Pepe the Frog memes were and continue to be non-bigoted, according to the league, but in recent years the frog image has been increasingly used in bigoted and racist contexts.
Pepe was recently used on a poster advertising the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., an event which spiraled into violent clashes resulting in one death and dozens of injuries. The rally, a high-profile gathering of white supremacist groups, comes after the U.S. has seen a spike in hate crimes; in March, Reuters reported that hate crimes in nine major metropolitan areas increased by 20 percent in 2016.
The father of one of the students who held up the Kekistan flag at Conant said his son knew the flag was associated with Pepe the Frog, but did not know about the meme’s connections to racism and bigotry.
“That was the boys’ understanding — it was goofy frog guy,” the father, who spoke on condition of anonymity to not identify his 17-year-old son, said of the meme. “It’s like a tragedy for us, an enormous misunderstanding from what was intended just to be a ridiculous joke.”
He stressed that his family condemns white supremacy and was upset that others were hurt over the incident.
In an interview with the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, Isaac Sites, the other student who held up the flag, said he wasn’t aware of Pepe the Frog’s newer connotations either.
“Only recently has it occurred in white supremacy groups. I’m not in support of these groups,” Sites, 17, told the paper. “I’m sorry that anyone was offended. We want to put this situation behind us, and it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone.”
Peggy Reynolds, a mother of three biracial daughters who go to the high school, was upset by the incident. She thinks the students must have known about what the flag stands for.
“If you look online, it states the flag is meant to cause chaos and hatred, that it’s been taken by white supremacists. It’s not a joke. Why would the family own that flag? Why would the boys bring it to school?” she said.
The father who spoke to The Sentinel anonymously said the family ordered the flag for his son from Amazon when they all believed it was a joke related to Pepe the Frog.
Reynolds said she’s filed a complaint with the N.H. Department of Education about the incident.
In his letter to parents, Duncan said that in the episode’s wake, the district needs to “look very closely at (its) own culture and analyze how (it operates).”
He said that on Tuesday, he met with Conant’s principal to discuss how the school can implement more inclusive practices.
Duncan declined to say whether the students who held up the flag faced any disciplinary action.
However, the father said his son was asked not to come to school while school officials’ investigation of the incident took place. He did not say how long that was, but said his son is now back in classes.