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Date: April 12, 2008
Byline: Kevin Barlow

Flags flown at half-staff can cause uproar if done improperly

NORMAL — In every case, the answer is virtually the same.

"We wanted to do something in their honor. We didn't think anyone would complain if we lowered the flag to half staff."

But people do complain.

Unit 5 School Superintendent Gary Niehaus understands that now.

It was Feb. 29 and the district was dealing with the aftermath of an accident that killed a 42-year-old woman who had walked in front of a Unit 5 school bus. The woman died, and Niehaus and his staff tossed around ideas on how to deal with the tragedy and move forward. Lowering the flags at Unit 5 schools, they thought, would be a good way to show respect and compassion for the woman.

While the intention may have been noble, the reaction against lowering the flags was swift. A Downs resident was the first to call, saying the district didn't have the authority to take the action — even for flags on its own property.

"We quickly restored the building flags to full staff," Niehaus said.

But the debate was on.

Who has the authority to order flags to half staff and when?

According to the U.S. Flag Code, only the president and state governors can decide when the flag should be flown at half staff. However, the temptation is there for anyone in charge of a facility with a flagpole on the grounds.

That's the temptation Clinton Mayor Ed Wollet faced in the days following the Nov. 5 death of Clinton Fire Chief Jeff Pearl. Wollet ordered the city's flags be lowered to honor the chief, but it didn't take long for him to meet resistance from local residents.

"I don't believe it was anything against Jeff, but some thought the flag should only be lowered under orders from the president or the governor," Wollet said. "Jeff was an active fire chief and a very popular figure in this town. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him."

And while Pearl may have served his community well, he was not a former president, current or former vice president, chief justice, speaker of the House of Representatives, associate justice of the Supreme Court, a secretary of an executive or military department, or the governor of a state, territory or possession. Also, he was not a senator, representative, delegate or the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico. Those are officials for whom the flag can be lowered, according to the flag code.

And Wollet soon learned that he, like Niehaus, didn't have the authority to lower the flag.

"He was a civil servant who died while he held the position of fire chief," Wollet said. "In my mind, certainly, he is someone who deserves an honor such as that."

But officials such as Wollet continue to get an education on what is and what isn't allowed for lowering the flag.

Even Niehaus, who has spent his entire career in education, learned something.

"The reaction was positive for the most part and informative," he said. "I talked with several people who just wanted me to know the flag codes. I learned something about the American flag."

One thing is certain, he said: People have very strong feelings about the flag.

Count Bloomington resident Randy Presswood among them.

"It just kind of hit me wrong," said Presswood, who was among those who objected to Unit 5 lowering the flag for the accident victim. "I talked with the superintendent about it, but by that time, he had received several complaints and had decided against lowering the flag. But there were a bunch of us who felt the same way. Lowering the flag sends an important message."

Clinton veteran Virgil Brady, a member of AMVETS, couldn't agree more.

"As a veteran, the flag stands for something very important to me, because there were so many of us, including myself, who fought for that flag," he said. "There are only two people who have the authority to lower the flag, and that's the way it should be."

"While it's understandable to want to honor someone for serving his community well, you have a major problem in where to draw the line at," he continued. "If you lower it for say, someone who served for 40 years on the fire department, then what about the guy who served 32 years? Or the guy who served 16? Or the guy who served five? It's very difficult to know who should get that honor and who shouldn't, so in my opinion, let the president and the governor decide."

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