Outcry prompts Longmont school to remove pro-gun link from website

Clip art linked to from the Altona home page.
Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

After a parent’s protest, a Longmont middle school that had a link on its home page to political websites touting gun rights and Tea Party messages has removed the link and apologized.

Altona Middle School Principal Joseph Mehsling, who was named Colorado’s middle school principal of the year in 2012, says that when he included the link on the school’s website in 2005, it was just intended to provide history about Altona’s motto, “Don’t tread on me,” and an early image of the school’s mascot, the rattlesnake.

The symbol of the rattlesnake and the words “Don’t tread on me” date back to the pre-Revolutionary War era, when a flag bearing that image and motto was carried by colonial Marines. Mehsling is a Republican and a former Marine, raising speculation among parents that he was promoting his political views via the public school’s website.

One parent of a prospective student says she was considering Altona for her child but changed her mind after seeing the websites linked to the middle school’s home page. She says she wants to remain anonymous, and that other parents she has talked to don’t want to go on record with the media about their concerns either, due to potential negative consequences for their families in the district or some kind of retaliation.

Altona is one of the highest-ranked middle schools in the area, earning designation as a John Irwin School of Excellence and a Distinguished Governor’s Award in 2010.

The link, which was changed last week after a parent complained, led to a website containing the history of the iconic image and motto, but also linked to sites with Tea Party blogs, a store selling graphic T-shirts bearing guns with messages like “Come and take it,” and photos of tattoos with snakes wrapped around guns and anti-gun-control messages.

BW used the Wayback Machine, an online service that periodically archives websites as they appeared at specific points in time, to view the “Don’t tread on me” link at the bottom of the Altona home page that led to the controversial material.

Image linked to from the Altona web page.

The parent interviewed by Boulder Weekly expressed concern about the pro-gun imagery in light of recent school shootings, and objected to the idea that a publicly funded school would have such politically charged messages so prominently featured on its home page. The parent charged that Mehsling might have been using the school website to promote his own political agenda.

Mehsling and school district officials say they addressed the issue quickly after being notified of it and changed the link to refer back to the school’s own home page.

John Poynton, public information officer for the St. Vrain Valley School District, says he got a call from a concerned parent last week. He and Mehsling say that unbeknownst to them, the websites linked from the Altona page became more political after the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.

Image from a website linked to from the Altona web page.

Mehsling, who was notified of the controversial link by his supervisor, Mark Mills, an assistant superintendent, says it was an oversight. He told BW that when the school first opened in 2005-06, he thought the “Don’t tread on me” motto would be appropriate since the school’s mascot was the rattlesnake. Mehsling says that in response to parent questions about the motto and the snake flag in the school, he did an Internet search for that saying, and linked to what he thought was an innocuous website about the history of the image, the motto and the flag. At the time, the Gadsden & Culpeper store that now features inflammatory pro-gun goods was only selling simple images of the snake and the motto on items like T-shirts and coffee cups, he says. And the linked site with photos of tattoos of snakes wrapped around guns with sayings like “Liberty or Death” was not as controversial at the time. A BW examination of past iterations of those sites via the Wayback Machine confirms that they were much more toned-down.

Mehsling says he was unaware that the linked sites had changed so much since he created the home page.

“I didn’t realize this because, honestly, I haven’t clicked into the website since the Tea Party,” he says. “It was a pretty innocuous site back in the day, it just sold some Don’t Tread On Me paraphernalia, none of the right-wing stuff it went to now. So when I found out about it last week, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m the webmaster too, so that day I removed the link, no problem.”

When asked about speculation that he linked to the material intentionally because of his political persuasions, Mehsling says, “No, and if I was, I’d be a heck of a mind-reader in 2005. When’s the Tea Party? 2010? I didn’t have a five-year plan.”

The Gadsden flag

In response to a question about whether he is a gun-rights advocate, Mehsling replies, “No, not necessarily.” He declines to reveal whether he owns guns or supports recent calls to have armed guards or armed teachers in schools. He also says no parent should have a fear of retribution.

“If it led to other sites and other links that are displaying inappropriate material, it shouldn’t be on a school’s website,” he says of the Altona home page. “I’m a former Marine, so people can probably make a lot of assumptions about me without talking to me. … The Gadsden flag was carried by colonial Marines in 1775, before there was even a United States flag, and it just fit with our rattlesnake motto. … It’s just a great kid motto, and it’s kind of sad it’s been hijacked for other uses.”

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