Three high school seniors were barred from Bloomington Kennedy High School's graduation ceremony Wednesday night at Target Center because of what the school district called a prank involving Confederate flags.

Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for the Bloomington School District, said three male students brought the flags onto school property Tuesday morning. Kaufman said they were suspended after "carrying and waving" the flags in the parking lot as parents and students arrived at the school.

Bloomington Kennedy senior Kellie Rezac is a friend of the three boys. She helped organize a protest Wednesday against the suspension of Dan Fredin, 18, Justin Thompson, 18 and Joey Snyder, 17.

Rezac said the flags were on the boys' cars and that her friends aren't racists. She said they've flown the Confederate flag before and simply admire the "Southern lifestyle" and TV shows such as "The Dukes of Hazzard." A male character from the popular 1980s show would slide across the hood of a now iconic two-door muscle car featuring a Confederate flag decal.

Fredin said teachers and security guards told the boys to get rid of the flags.

One of them complied and another drove the truck home and returned to school without it.

"They didn't even drive 100 feet into the school parking lot and the teachers and [security guards] came out and said 'remove it from sight,'" Fredin said.

He had arrived separately and had gone into the building before the teachers made the request. Fredin said someone removed the flag from his vehicle on Tuesday without notifying him. "I don't even know where it is now."

Principal Ron Simmons spoke with the boys shortly after the incident and suspended each of them for three days based on the district's anti-discrimination rules. Superintendent Les Fujitake affirmed Simmons' decision Tuesday evening, despite objections from the boys' parents and several students.

"The Confederate flag is an issue we take seriously, regardless of their intent," Kaufman, the district spokesman, said.

As recently as 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from students disciplined for displaying the Confederate flag. Many lower courts that have addressed the issue upheld decisions by school administrators.

But Fredin and Rezac contend Principal Simmons overreacted. Fredin said Simmons didn't witness the boys' compliance with other staff members' orders to remove the flag from school property.

"I'm from a family of five, and I'm the first one not to walk [in graduation]," Fredin said. "It's like getting life in prison for jaywalking."

Rezac said almost 100 Kennedy students participated in the protest in support of the boys on Wednesday morning, including black students who are friends of the boys. Students wore white T-shirts with the three students' names and chanted, "Let them walk."

"The Confederate flag was in Confederate battles, and it had nothing to do with slavery," said Rezac, who said she's studied the Civil War outside of school. "The [Bloomington Kennedy] class of 2008 wants to walk together."

Kennedy seniors were on campus Wednesday morning for graduation practice, and school officials reportedly asked the protesters to remove the T-shirts before they entered the rehearsal. The protesters complied, Kaufman said.

"This doesn't mean they [the three boys] won't get their diploma," he said. "They've earned that. But graduation is a privilege, not a right."

Bloomington's conduct policies ban students from any school-sponsored activities including graduation during a suspension. Kennedy's student body is made up of more than 40 percent minority students, according to the state Department of Education.

Kaufman said it's unfortunate that the boys' decision resulted in their exclusion from the graduation ceremony, but the ban on the Confederate flag isn't new. He said Kennedy High students know the flag is banned because it may violate anti-discrimination policies.

"We believe and have communicated with students that the Confederate flag represents hatred, bigotry, intolerance, slavery, civil rights issues and discrimination," Kaufman said.

On Wednesday, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota said any legal challenge put up by the suspended students' families would have a "very, very slim" chance of succeeding.

"If, in the opinion of the administration, your speech carries the possibility of a material disruption of the educational process, they can censor it," said state ACLU Executive Director Chuck Samuelson. "I wish students had more rights, but they have no rights."

Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395