The tension that flared this week over an Instagram post showing two East Chapel Hill High students waving Civil War flags on a class field trip spilled over into the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board meeting Thursday night.
Many of the nearly 20 speakers, including two former board members, said the photo and a comment below it about buying a slave reflected a larger racial insensitivity within the school system.
The father and brother of the girl who posted the photo again defended her. One speaker compared those calling for punishing the students to a lynch mob.
After about 10 people spoke, board Chairman Mike Kelley –after repeatedly trying to limit speakers to two minutes each – briefly stopped the meeting.
He stood up and asked those in the packed Town Hall council chamber to also stand and turn around for a moment. Some, including a handful of board members, did.
“Let everyone take a deep breath,” he said.
Most community members learned about the Instagram post within the past week. The students were in an honors class called “Civil War – History of the American West,” and about 50 were on the field trip, which took place April 15-18, school district spokesman Jeffrey Nash said by email Friday.
On Wednesday, the NAACP and others groups and individuals held a press conference to denounce the post. They said the school system was “whitewashing” the incident and accused the district of a double standard by not punishing the students, saying black students are disciplined far more often than whites.
Ronald Creatore, father of the girl who posted the photo, said his daughter and another student were part of the class recreating Pickett’s Charge at the Gettysburg Battlefield.
“My daughter was not raised in an environment of hate,” Creatore said at Wednesday’s press conference.
His daughter wrote “South will rise,” but it was in the spirit of the re-enactment, Creatore said. After another student posted the comment “Already bought my first slave,” one of the girls in the photo immediately wrote “No, no,” and the photo was quickly taken down.
“My daughter is very upset,” Creatore said. “This was never intended in the way it’s being perceived in the community. ... The girls have apologized, and no one has accepted their apology.”
Several speakers at Thursday’s meeting – at which several Jewish people also criticized the board for holding school makeup days on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath – called on school officials to participate in a community conversation about race.
“Racism is learned behavior,” said Michelle Laws, executive director of the state NAACP, who called Creatore a “provocateur” for having shifted the focus of the previous day’s press conference.
“The Confederate flag, there’s nothing cute about it,” Laws told the school board. “And how dare some of you try to whitewash this incident and not deal with it seriously.”
Superintendent Tom Forcella has said the post and comment were offensive but did not rise to the district’s definition of bullying, which is a repeated behavior.
Forcella said the students were not suspended but would not discuss Wednesday or again Thursday whether there were any consequences to their actions.
But Dionne McLaughlin, an N.C. Central University professor and mother of two middle school students, said the Instagram post had created “a substantial disruption in the school community,” which she said can lead to suspension.
“I belive that inaction is not an option,” she told the board.
Taliana Tudryn, a senior at Carrboro High School and one of several students who spoke, called racism a disease many didn’t think Chapel Hill-Carrboro had.
She said in all her A.P. classes there have never been more than two other Latino or black students with her in the room, especially troubling in social studies.
“We struggle with Ferguson and Baltimore and Durham and Mike Brown and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner alone in small groups,” she said. “We may even go to marches and face riot officers and sound cannons and witness others being beat by batons. Then we come back into the classroom and our white peers, our teachers our administrators are silent.”
Two former board members also spoke.
“Yes the flag is part of our heritage; slavery is also part of our heritage,” said Mark Royster, a former chairman of the school board and of the district’s Blue Ribbon Task Force that looked at the achievement gap. “But that does not preclude us from making certain that those we teach are aware of the sensitivity of those things that are part of our heritage.
Greg McElveen, ther other former school board member, wanted to know more about the teacher and class that would ask students to pick up and carry Civil War flags. The flags were North Carolina regiment flags, though some have called them Confederate flags.
“Instructing students to make the charge is almost like going to a concentration camp and asking students to pretend that they are guards killing the survivors in a concentration camp,” McElveen said. “The teachers are not teaching in a culturally sensitive way. They are leading students astray instead of helping them to know the impact of these symbols.”
After everyone spoke, Forcella said the district is taking the incident seriously.
“I do believe our entire staff needs to take responsibility for addressing the issues that appear to be unfair to any individual or subgroup in our district,” he said.
“It is our intent to continue to look at what happened in this particular incident and try to improve our system and learn from what happened and be able to get better,” he said.
The school board did not respond to the comments Thursday night, and most people filed out of the Chapel Hill Town Hall meeting room after the last speaker spoke.
Statement from Superintendent Tom Forcella
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spends significant time training staff and working with students in matters of equity. I consider us to be a progressive school district, so it stands to reason, when it comes to equity training for both students and staff. We are very concerned any time there are accusations of racist behaviors, and we take these conversations very seriously.
In the past three weeks, we have heard from many in our community who are concerned about a picture and comments posted on a social media site. We have been questioned about any consequences for the students involved.
First, it is unlawful for us to publicly discuss these matters. It is never permissible for us to share confidential information about our students. Second, while some would say we are hiding behind the first amendment, I would say we are standing on the first amendment. Students are guaranteed the same rights as all citizens.
Having said that, we agree that there is still much work to do. The implications, and sometimes unintended consequences, that arise on social networking sites need a more deliberate approach. Implicit bias does exist in all of us, regardless of our race. We need to address it directly whether it is in classrooms or in teachable moments on athletic fields, at extra-curricular events or in our school hallways.
As a school district, we are always looking to improve, and that includes our equity work with students, staff and our entire community. We need to recognize and celebrate the differences that bring a very healthy diversity to our schools.