Red Flag: Confederate Imagery Expelled from County Schools

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A statue of an unnamed Virginia Confederate soldier stands in front of the county Courthouse in downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Confederate imagery and other symbols that promote racial hatred have been explicitly banned by Albemarle County school officials, and students who wear or display such insignia will be counseled to change clothes or go home. After more than a year of debate by the School Board during which they appeared to be deadlocked on the dress code issue, it was Superintendent Matt Haas who ultimately imposed the ban.  

“Our policy states that any clothing that interferes with or disrupts our educational environment is unacceptable,” said Haas in a letter to parents and students before the ban went into effect. “This requirement always has been present in our policy. It is not new.” What is new is the way that the term “disrupts” will be interpreted by Haas, whose job entails enforcing School Board policy.

“When you define disruption as a big brawl in the hall between students, then you might say these images aren’t really an issue,” said Haas after the ban was instituted. “But think about the psychological harm that was done by the Confederate imagery on display on August 12th [during Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally]. My perspective is that it’s already been disruptive, it’s just taken a long time for us to recognize it.”

School officials take care to link the Confederate imagery ban to classroom “disruption” because of the issue that most concerns the policy’s opponents—that it interferes with students’ free speech rights. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines, a case in which students were not allowed to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, came to be known as the “Tinker standard.” The court decided that the students should be allowed to wear the armbands because they did not “materially disrupt” the educational process, pointedly noting that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Albemarle School Board learned that lesson the hard way in 2003 when it lost a lawsuit filed by the family of Jack Jouett Middle School student Alan Newsom, who was told he could not wear an NRA camp T-shirt to school, resulting in a $150,000 judgement against the board. However, several recent circuit court decisions have relaxed the Tinker standard to include behavior that is “potentially disruptive,” and the subtle shift in legal status has opened some doors for schools to take action. 

Though John Whitehead, a First Amendment attorney and president of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, has predicted that Albemarle County will be sued for instituting the ban, calling it “censorship” in a recent WINA radio interview, Haas remains sanguine about the rule’s prospects. “After I took over [in July of 2018], we hired our own School Board attorney who has done an expansive review of recent court decisions and has prepared a brief for us,” said Haas, “and I’m confident we would prevail in a suit.” 

Terms of the debate

The long-running debate has at times produced a tense atmosphere in the normally staid school board meetings. A local group of parents and community members called the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County (HFSC) pressed the board to enact a ban on Confederate imagery at meetings throughout 2018. While some HFSC members made their case at the microphone, others also interrupted board members by yelling, cursing, and gesturing rudely, adding further strain to already difficult discussions. The chaotic interruptions at the board’s August 2018 meeting resulted in six arrests.

As they deliberated over whether or not to change the dress code policy, every member of the board balanced First Amendment concerns against their goal of preserving a stress-free learning environment for students. At this year’s February 14 meeting where each board member described their current position on the question, three members leaned against the ban, stressing the value of free speech in education.

“We expect our students to grapple with concepts and ideas, we explain flaws in reasoning, but we should not force them to believe as we do,” said Steve Kolezar. “They should be allowed to take positions that we might find abhorrent,” and should be intellectually challenged on those positions. “Banning the [Confederate] flag might give us the pretense that we have done something about racism, but it has little effect on the underlying problems.” 

Three other members argued that Confederate imagery was too big of an obstacle to ignore. “Our city was the site of a prominent hate rally and the Confederate flag was a symbol of that rally, and to pretend that our students are not affected by that is naïve at best,” said Katrina Callsen. “We are not the model of racial equality, we have a legacy of discrimination.”

Several board members referred to an opinion email from the division’s School Health Advisory Board, a group of local parents, physicians, and community members headed by pediatrician Dr. Lori Balaban. The opinion summarized recent articles in outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic on the likely effects of Confederate imagery on student success. The group concluded that “[e]xposure to symbols that are perceived as discriminatory or threatening in the school setting can affect the physical health of our students as well as their ability to learn.”

Superintendent Matthew Haas. Photo submitted.

Finally, school board chairman Jonno Alcaro spoke of his own mixed feelings on the issue. While he expressed empathy toward students who feel threatened by the imagery, “my biggest concern is the concept of waving a red flag in front of an angry bull,” he said, referring to the backlash that often results from imposing bans of any kind. “The reality is that the political hue of this board will ebb and flow over time, and I want to leave broad and general guidance for future boards,” to avoid a cycle of ever-changing restrictions. “Banning symbols is a slippery slope that I really don’t want to go down.”

At the end of the discussion, Superintendent Haas declared that he was “getting impatient” with the pace of deliberations, a comment for which he has since apologized. “I’m sitting on my hands waiting for some direction from the board,” he said, and then announced his intention to reinterpret the enforcement of the dress code policy to include a ban on Confederate and other imagery. 

School board members did not object, nor were they required to vote on the interpretation, and Haas formalized the ban at the February 28 meeting: “Symbols, lettering or insignia associated with organizations that promote racial hatred or violence or that support white supremacy, to include Confederate symbolism, and other racist imagery, such as the swastika, are not permitted in our schools because they cause substantial disruption, interfere with our educational responsibilities, and may lead to further unrest in the future.”

Lessons learned

Albemarle County School Board member David Oberg. (Submitted photo)

David Oberg, White Hall district representative on the School Board, supports the ban as a mechanism to help reduce achievement gaps among students. “The fact is when you analyze the numbers, our children of color are not doing as well as our white kids across the board,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a leap that [Confederate images] are affecting the quality of learning” for those students. As evidence, Oberg relayed an anecdote in which a student of color was taking a test across the table from a student whose T-shirt read ‘The South will rise again,’ and the student of color felt that she did poorly on the test because of her visceral response to the shirt’s message.

“There is plenty of research on the psychological effects of how these images affect children, including very negative physical impacts,” said Haas. “Students become uncomfortable when they encounter these images, their heart rates elevate. Our division has 10 percent African-American students and 13 percent Latino; that’s a significant population affected by this.”

Oberg doesn’t think that most violations of the policy are racially motivated. “I don’t believe for a minute that 90 percent of the people who wear Confederate flags do so with the intent of causing someone else harm, but intent doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s an issue of systemic racism, and the practice is affecting students regardless of the wearer’s level of animus.”

Haas’ interpretation of the dress code policy is broad, encompassing all “organizations that promote racial hatred or violence.” While the dress code is facially neutral—meaning it does not discriminate against any particular group—its equitable application in practice depends on what he judges to be offensive. When asked about the “slippery slope” alluded to by Chairman Alcaro, in which a ban might be applied to any item or symbol that a student says is threatening, Haas was dismissive. 

“In all the years I’ve been in education, I’ve yet to see a slippery slope,” he said. “It’s never happened. That’s an argument that people use to keep the status quo.” He tackled a further rationalization as well. “Another argument we use in education is that [a particular course of action] may not solve the problem so there’s no need to do it. But just because this policy won’t solve all the problems, I just think at some point it’s time for a change.”

Would the “The South will rise again” wording, with no flag, be subject to the ban? “Oh, absolutely,” said Haas. “There were people at those rallies wearing those types of shirts.” What about slogans or images from other types of groups that express racial hostility? “I’d say, show me the research that says that imagery causes students to react,” he said. “I’m basing this decision on the research.”

Open a dialogue

On March 12, the first day that the new policy interpretation went into effect, a Western Albemarle High School student arrived at school wearing a Confederate flag hat, which he refused to remove, and his father came to school and took him home. He wore the hat again the next day, and a shirt with a slogan referring to “racial cleansing” on the day after that, but has since attended school without incident. 

Later in the month, two students at Walton Middle School wore homemade T-shirts featuring the Confederate flag along with the names of figures from Confederate history. Both students spent the day working on their studies from a conference room set aside for that purpose. They returned to school the next day and since then without incident.

Darah Bonham. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The on-the-ground enforcers of the revised dress code rules are the school principals, who find ways to guide students away from their habitual choices. For WAHS Principal Darah Bonham, that involves having lots of conversations. “Our number one job here is to educate,” said Bonham, “and that means to have discussions. Whether it’s a classroom of 25 or a school of 1,100, part of the conversation is to listen, and maybe we have to agree to disagree.”

Bonham took a proactive approach to the new rules, meeting with groups of students he anticipated might be impacted by the changes in advance and encouraging class discussions where the issue can be framed in a historical or current events context. A point of emphasis for Bonham is consistency of responses among staff. 

“We held an 8-period faculty meeting with staff in small groups and went through procedures as to what should happen [if a student violates the policy], so we can assess the situations in a purposeful, consistent way,” he said. “We’re very cautious. We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s rights, but so many things have an impact on education that opening up the communication lines is always helpful.” Toward that end, the school division is prepping an anonymous reporting app for mobile devices that can be used by all students and staff to report incidents or observations regarding racism, bullying, or other issues, to be rolled out in the next school year.

Looking ahead, the Hate-Free Schools Coalition (which did not respond to a request for comment for this story) has additional goals with respect to the School Board, according to its Facebook page. These include plans to “hold ACPS accountable for their lack of transparency during the school threats last week,” “continue pressing for anti-racist curriculum within ACPS,” and “continue to demand that the School Board formally ban confederate and other white supremacist imagery.”

Matt Haas hopes that all of these future conversations can be civil and productive. “I take the words of MLK, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ So, if you want to have a hate-free environment, don’t be hateful.” 

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