Confederate flag ignites battle between private Columbia school, parent

A dispute over the Confederate flag has pitted one of Columbia’s premier private schools against a parent of two students.

Rhett Ingram, 38, on Thursday took his 14- and 11-year-old children out of Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, the only school they’ve known, after the school adopted a policy that effectively bans the Civil War-era banner.

Heathwood officials said Ingram repeatedly had been asked not to display the flag on his pickup truck while on the school’s campus. But they said Ingram persisted, becoming disruptive to the school’s environment. Ingram also brought unsecured firearms onto the campus in his truck about a month ago, headmaster Chris Hinchey said Friday.

“We engaged in thoughtful conversation for over a month hoping to reach some resolution,” Hinchey said. “Just as we enforce dress codes with children ... we felt that we needed to enforce our (flag) policy.”

This week, Heathwood, which has students as young as 2, presented Ingram with a trespassing notice that says he cannot be on its campus unless he has an appointment that includes written permission from Hinchey.

Ingram says he is standing on principle, not being an agitator.

“I’m a stay-to-myself kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the newspaper. (But) I don’t want this to happen to another family ... when they’ve done nothing wrong. That’s my motive.”

‘Potential to be polarizing’

Ingram, a Lexington County native and owner of a steel fabrication company in Dixiana, said his passions about his family’s Confederate heritage and its flag were ignited in the summer of 2015. That’s when the Legislature voted to remove the flag from the grounds of the State House after nine African-American parishioners were slain at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Ingram says the Confederate flag and the heritage it represents have been “under attack since (then-Gov.) Nikki Haley removed it,” he said. “The morals this country was founded on are being attacked every day, and it’s gotten worse (since the flag’s removal).”

Ever since, Ingram has been on a mission to distribute Confederate flags. “I have more flags than the Confederacy,” he said, estimating there are 800 at his home.

On the past two Confederate Memorial Day holidays, Heathwood headmaster Hinchey said Ingram drove to the school with 4-foot-by-6-foot Confederate flags in the bed of his truck. Starting at the end of last school year, his truck also displayed a 1-foot-square flag on a side mirror.

Heathwood’s flag policy, enacted Sept. 26, states that only banners of the United States, South Carolina, the Episcopal Church, Heathwood and accredited independent post-secondary schools may be displayed on campus, including on vehicles that arrive at the school south of Columbia.

Hinchey and Heathwood board member Kirby Shealy III said the policy was enacted after a violent clash in Charlottesville, Va., during a march by white supremacists, including Nazi sympathizers. The policy is not aimed at the Confederate flag, they said.

“Charlottesville made it clear to us that there were certain symbols that had the potential to be polarizing,” the headmaster said.

Shealy added, “We’re just trying to keep that campus from distractions.”

‘Supporting my heritage’

Ingram said he is just exercising his First Amendment rights by displaying the flag on his vehicle. “I don’t go out there ... and try to shove my views down their throats.”

In an email to parents about the new policy, Heathwood said the school “encourages free expression.” But equally important is “providing a nondistruptive learning environment that inspires age-appropriate civil discourse.”

The ban includes sanctions against violators to the point of “the withdrawal of the invitation to be on the Heathwood campus.”

After being served with a trespassing warning, Ingram said he considered returning to the school with a flag and facing arrest. But he did not want his children to see their father in custody. “This hasn’t been easy on them,” he said.

“There would not be a policy if it was not about me supporting my heritage. They got their way,” Ingram said of school officials. “They got rid of me.”