A Phoenix-Talent school bus driver was suspended from his job Wednesday for refusing to remove a Confederate flag from his personal vehicle.
Ken Webber, 28, of Medford said he's worked for four years for First Student School Bus Transportation Services, a contractor for the Phoenix-Talent School District. He said he began flying the Confederate flag in the bed of his white 1997 Dodge Dakota pickup a year and a half ago after receiving the flag as a birthday gift from his father.
Webber, who was born in Riverside, Calif., and graduated from Phoenix High School, said he defines a redneck as someone who is from the South, "stands up for what he believes in," hunts, fishes and goes "mudding" in his truck.
Each school day, before taking on his bus duties, he parked his truck in the employee parking lot at the First Student bus barn on Colver Road. The 3-by-5-foot Confederate flag, with the word, "Redneck," emblazoned across it and adorned with a fox tail and gray squirrel tail, was not visible from the street, Webber said.
Webber said his supervisor, Jonel Todd, asked him Wednesday to remove the flag. He said her request came after she received a similar request from Ben Bergreen, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District.
"I got no written warnings," he said. "It was either you take it down or you get suspended. I said, 'I am not going to take my flag down.' She said, 'Well, we have to suspend you.' "
First Student spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said Webber was asked to remove the flag because it violates the school district's policy.
"We lease our property from the school district, making it school property so it is part of School Board policy," Bastian said.
The district's policy states that prohibited harassment "may include, but not be limited to, jokes, stories, pictures or objects that are offensive, tend to alarm, annoy, abuse or demean certain protected individuals and groups."
After Bergreen's visit, Webber said, he was told the superintendent wanted the flag removed, but his supervisor took no action to try to force Webber to do so at that time.
Bergreen said he was trying to take a low-key approach to avoid potential conflict over the flag.
"I just said, 'Some people find that symbol offensive, and I would appreciate him moving it,'" Bergreen said. "...That's all I did. Initially, I appealed to his good judgment."
Asked what happened after that point, Bergreen declined further comment, noting that Webber has said he is considering litigation.
Webber insists there are no racist sentiments in his choice of flags. He says he has friends who are black, including one from childhood, another who lives in Ashland and fellow parishioners at this church.
Webber said his suspension violates his First Amendment right of free speech. He plans to hire an attorney.
"It's my truck," Webber said. "Why are others allowed to display Obama stickers. That offends me. What about pirates who kill four Americans? The Phoenix Pirates (the high school mascot) offend me. Are they going to take down all the Pirate signs because somebody was offended?"
Courts recently have upheld school bans on the Confederate flags inside school buildings, but it's unclear how First Student's role as a private contractor, the location where Webber parked and the fact that the flag is displayed on a personal vehicle might play out in court.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org