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Half-staff flags, even at Bear River, meant to unite nation

The American flag flies at full mast at Bear River High School. Photo by Maddie Meilinger

The American flag is symbolic of many things, and so its placement on the flagpole has come to represent either tragedy or triumph; meant to unite the nation in the event of disaster, it has become tradition for every public place displaying the flag to lower it to half-mast, or half-staff, on certain designated days. But, at Bear River High School, who is it that elects which horrific events are worthy of being recognized across the nation? 

Senior Grace McDaniel guessed at what might be considered worthy. 

“There’s a lot of stuff that could be considered,” she said. “Just like, anything that could happen to someone in our country who has a leadership position possibly, or someone who’s well-known enough. I don’t really know.” 

Fellow Senior Grace Billingsley made similar assumptions.

“I would say that usually they fly the flag at half mast for positions of leadership, or like a tragedy like 9/11,” she said. “Or if it’s someone in the military, like a large person in the military is injured or hurt or killed, and sometimes they’ll do it for police, even if it’s just like a local officer.”

Her mention of locality sparked another question— are local tragedies recognized by their close community, or is the symbolism of the flag meant only to utilized in national calamities?  

Billingsley said that she was conflicted on what she thinks should be the case.

“I would say you could go down to the district level but not a lot smaller than that, but at the same time, the whole point of a half mast is to unite the nation under something, and that’s not something that happens very often in today’s society,” Billingsley said. “So I feel like there’s some respect to that, keeping it in a special place.” 

According to, this idea of reserving half-mast for only a very few events is what has been attempted to be achieved. It said that the flag shall be flown at half-staff only by order of the President, or in certain cases the state and territory Governors. 

“Flying the flag at half-staff is an area of flag etiquette that most people want to make sure they get right,” it said. “It is also an area for which the road to error is routinely paved with good intentions.”

It went on to explain what is meant by this statement.

“Although the code is actually pretty clear, confusion continues to occur,” it said. “For example… Mayor Tom Murphy ordered all flags flown at half-staff to honor the victims of a plane crash… A well-intentioned gesture, but one for which no authority exists.”

It continued, elaborating on the purpose of highlighting what it calls “good-faith misunderstandings.”

“[We point this out] not to criticize or embarrass anyone, but rather to head off a growing trivialization of this memorial salute, and to preserve the dignity and significance of flying the U.S. flag at half-staff,” it said. “We grieve these human loses deeply; however, we believe proper respect for our flag must be maintained – no matter the circumstances.”

Bear River Principal Chris Roberts confirmed that this nation-wide Flag Code is what Bear River operates on. 

“Our district administration, custodial/maintenance/grounds crew, and secretaries get an email notifying us of days where the flag should fly at half-staff,” Mr. Roberts said. “The email comes from Jenna Johnson who is a liaison at the County Superintendent of Schools Office. She receives the official email from the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House… who relays orders from the President of the United States. So, although the email comes from the Press Secretary it’s actually an order directly from the President.”

According to an article published by Urban Milwaukee, this tradition dates back to 1612, when a ship crew raised their flag to half-mast to honor the death of their captain. One of the first usages of the symbol in such a way in the United States was to mourn the death of President George Washington. The United States Flag Code was adopted in 1942 by Congress, in response to concerns that “the national symbol was being misappropriated for commercial and advertising purposes.” 

Due to the Flag Code’s parameters, the events that are mourned by the national flag tend to be more national events. Because of this, those who are far away geographically from the given event are sometimes unaware of what tragedy is the reason for a half-staff flag. McDaniel described what she does when she is confused about a half-mast flag. 

“It usually just sparks up conversation with people, and I get to learn about what’s actually happening,” she said.

Whether or not students are bothered by uncertainty about national events, Mr. Roberts offered a solution to the problem of being uninformed. 

“At, the public can find out exactly why the flag is at half-staff,” he said. 

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Half-staff flags, even at Bear River, meant to unite nation