Chapel Hill News

Orange County Schools rejects request for Confederate flag ban

Anna Johnson and Mark Schultz

Steve Halkiotis, chairman of the Orange County Schools Board of Education, and Superintendent Todd Wirt listen to speakers, most of them asking the board to ban the Confederate flag from school grounds, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, at Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough, N.C. About 50 people signed up to speak at the meeting, almost all of them against the flag.
Steve Halkiotis, chairman of the Orange County Schools Board of Education, and Superintendent Todd Wirt listen to speakers, most of them asking the board to ban the Confederate flag from school grounds, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, at Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough, N.C. About 50 people signed up to speak at the meeting, almost all of them against the flag. mschultz@newsobserver.com

A parent pushing to ban the Confederate flag in the Orange County Schools wants to know why the school board let 50 people speak Monday night if it had already decided what it would do.

Latarndra Strong first wrote to school leaders after seeing a truck with a Confederate flag on it pull into the student parking lot at her daughter’s school three days in a row.

“I thought, really, we’re allowing that?” Strong said in an interview Tuesday. “It made me feel uncomfortable.”

Dozens of people who agreed with her spoke at Monday’s school board meeting. One person spoke for the flag, saying it symbolized his Southern heritage.

But after more than two hours of public comment, chairman Steve Halkiotis, reading a prepared statement, said the board would not ban the flag. Instead, the board would establish an equity committee to advise it on symbolic speech and other matters.

“We believe that our school principals are best equipped to monitor and respond to issues of bullying, harassment or other disruptive conduct and to issue consequences set forth in the code of conduct,” Halkiotis said in the statement. “The board and administration believe the best way to effect positive change in the behavior of students is through the programmatic steps it is taking and not by banning a particular symbol”

Strong and others in the Hate Free Schools Coalition got up to leave. Halkiotis called out, asking them to stay to hear the last two paragraphs of his statement.

But Strong felt the speakers never had a chance.

“You cannot prepare a speech like that in response to the 50 speakers you’ve just heard,” unless it was done ahead of time, she said. “We were incredibly insulted; that’s why we stood up to get out.”

After the public comments at Monday’s meeting, Halkiotis asked board members Michael Hood and Brenda Stephens to join him on the equity committee.

‘Inflammatory’

The Northern Orange County NAACP asked the school board to ban the Confederate flag during the board’s earlier meeting in February. It was the second time the NAACP chapter made the request.

“To the NAACP, that includes the historical context of the Confederate flag to slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War and Jim Crow,” NAACP President Patricia Clayton said in her letter to school board members. “For many, the flag is a racially inflammatory symbol, which is undeniably rooted in slavery and racism. Given OCS’ commitment to serve all students, the district should not allow the Confederate flag on its campuses.”

The school board has not had the Confederate flag as an agenda item this year and doesn’t typically respond to people speaking during the public comments part of its meetings, Orange County Schools spokesman Seth Stephens said Tuesday.

Halkiotis did note that few school districts ban the flag. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Durham Public Schools do not ban it, for example, while Chatham County Schools does.

On Monday, several students, parents, employees and community members – most of them white – said the Confederate flags is increasingly appearing on vehicles, bags and pieces of clothing on school grounds.

“I am a mother of two children in Orange County Schools, one of which has had a few incidents involving the Confederate flag as recently as last week when a young man came up to my son and asked him how he felt about the flag,” said Nedra Bradsher. “When my son expressed that he was offended by it, this young man proceeded to call my son an ignorant N-word.”

She was then interrupted by the school board attorney, who asked that she not discuss “specific issues involving specific students.”

Southern heritage

Gary Williamson, an Alamance County resident who founded ACTBAC NC (which stands for Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County) and has helped organize several pro-Confederate flags and “pro-Southern rights” events, spoke in favor of the Confederate flag during the meeting.

“I am probably not going to make the most popular speech tonight, but I am stand up for our heritage and our purpose,” he said. “What you call the Confederate flag is not the Confederate flag. It’s the battle flag of Northern Virginia. It was a symbol that stood against tyranny against what a lot of people considered a secular union.”

But Shaniece Thorpe, a junior at Orange High School, said some students use the Confederate flag to make themselves feel superior to her and other black students.

“It makes me feel isolated and distracts me,” she said. “I have the same potential or more potential than the people who feel like I am belittled in my class.”

Through tears, Kelly Doherty asked why the student dress code makes her 11-year-old daughter’s potentially bare thigh a “distraction” but is silent on the Confederate flag. There are students, she said, who are too scared and affected by the intimidation from students wearing Confederate flags to speak out.

The school district’s previous student dress and behavior policy prohibited conduct “demeaning to a person’s race, religion, disability, sex, national origin or intellectual ability.”

The new dress code, revised last winter, no longer spells out such characteristics. But the district’s new anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying policy, revised at the same time as the dress code, covers race in a much longer list of protected characteristics, prohibiting mistreatment of others based on “race, color, religion ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental physical, developmental or sensory disability.”

Strong said she doesn’t know what the coalition will do next and doesn’t regret speaking up.

“When you complain about something you wonder if it’s your issue,” she said. “Hearing these speakers made me realize it’s not just my issue.”

Johnson: 919-419-6675; @anna_m_johnson

Schultz: 919-829-8950; @chapelhillnews1

About the equity committee

The new equity committee could meet as early as Monday before the regularly scheduled school board meeting, school board Chairman Steve Halkiotis said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We don’t make instantaneous decisions; it’s just not the way,” he said.”The process has to be a very thoughtful and deliberate process. That’s why we set up the committee to look at the whole issues and was a good faith effort on part of the board to show that we listen and care about people’s concerns.”

The idea for the committee was first discussed in the closed session before Monday’s school board meeting, Halkiotis said.

School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said he couldn’t say what was or wasn’t discussed during closed session, but that a committee wasn’t created during the closed session.

“That would not be permissible,” he said, adding he “didn’t believe (the committee creation) would require a vote.

The reasons why the school board went into closed session, Blumberg said, were to protect attorney-client privilege, personnel matters and confidentially matters involving a student.

Staff writer Anna Johnson

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