FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA (Mark Price/Charlotte Observer) - A school district outside of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has issued an apology after one of its yearbooks featured an image of a white teen wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt, holding a shotgun and standing in a cotton field.
The controversial photo appeared in the Cape Fear High School yearbook, in a section devoted to senior students, reported Spectrum News.
Jay and Tracy Butler, who have a son enrolled at Cape Fear High, say they found the photo disturbing on multiple levels.
"In light of all the publicity we've had lately over shootings in schools, I thought it was kind of tacky that we're featuring photos publicizing guns," Jay Butler told the Charlotte Observer.
"It was a minute or two later that I noticed he was standing in a cotton field, wearing the Confederate flag. That's when I thought: 'This is appalling.' But I don't blame the parents or the student, I blame the school."
Debate over the message conveyed by Confederate battle flags is central to a contentious debate in the Carolinas that got several students suspended last week from Burns High in Cleveland County, reported the Shelby Star. The teens refused to stop flying Confederate flags from their trucks on school grounds, and school officials accused them of being disruptive, The Star reported.
Some see the image as racist, given its relationship to the Civil War. Others view it as a blue-collar cultural symbol for working class Southern whites.
TV station WTVD reported the photo was accepted for inclusion in the yearbook after being submitted by the student's mother, who told WTVD "she saw nothing wrong with it."
However, the Cumberland County Schools issued a statement Wednesday, apologizing and pledged it won't happen again.
"We sincerely regret that a photo of this nature was overlooked," said a statement from the district. "It does not reflect the values of Cape Fear High School. Our climate is one of inclusiveness."
The district went on to say measures will be taken "to ensure there is a more thorough review process of the yearbook in place before it is published."
The Observer asked the school district for details on the existing policy for submitting yearbook photos and was told "there is not a yearbook policy."
Social media erupted in arguments both for and against the photo after it was posted on Facebook and Twitter by media outlets. Some supported the teen's right to freedom of speech, while one blogger likened it to "troubling" photos posted by Dylann Roof in the months before he killed a group of African Americans at a Charleston church.
"This issue is much bigger than the simple question of how a photograph was approved for a yearbook," wrote blogger Kevin M. Levin. "Local authorities need to get involved."
Questions were also raised over who on the school staff approved the yearbook before it was printed and how they missed the photo.
Cape Fear High has a student population of just over 1,500 , and 44 percent are minorities,according to USNew.com.
"Somebody at that school needs to get fired for allowing this," posted William S. Grace on Facebook. "The picture is mean spirited and racist."
"How the hell did this make the yearbook?" asked Teddy Patrick on Facebook. "Does the school have a gun club that I'm missing? Did they take a field trip to a cotton field? Doesn't make sense."
"Whatever happened to the First Amendment? Freedom of expression?" Steven Preddy asked on Facebook, defending the photo.
"I'm usually one of the people who says it's just a picture, but this is wrong and y'all know it. It's the symbolism behind the picture that is wrong," Laura Elizabeth wrote on Facebook.
"Stop trying to make things they aren't. This picture has nothing to do with slavery or racism," posted Angela Whitt on social media.
"I am one hundred percent positive there will come a time in this young man's life when he and his mother will regret choosing this particular photo for his yearbook picture," posted Juanita Bowling Hill on Facebook. "I can assure them, this photo will haunt him for the rest of his life. They see nothing offensive about it, someone else will."