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Albemarle School Board turns focus to anti-racist policy

Following a contentious meeting of the Albemarle County School Board, the county schools are sticking with a dress code policy that does not ban Confederate symbols.

On Thursday, dozens of community members gathered in a small room at the Albemarle County Office Building to ask the School Board to ban Confederate symbols from the dress code.

Led by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, community members quickly filled up the room and many had to stand in the hallway.

After the first person spoke during public comment, board Chairwoman Kate Acuff declared a ten-minute recess and then adjourned the meeting. Many items set to be discussed — including the contentious dress code policy and a new anti-racist policy — were left untouched.

According to Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the school division, the board will not be implementing a specific ban on Confederate symbols in the dress code.

Instead, the county schools will move forward with a new policy that opts to help explain to students how their attire can be offensive to others.

“We believe this will help create a more healthy dialogue than just punishing the students,” Giaramita said.

The school district is worried that by banning Confederate symbols, it would open itself up to legal consequences for violating students’ First Amendment rights, he said.

Leslie Kendrick, a vice dean at the University of Virginia School of Law, said public schools have to provide a lot of leeway in how they allow students to express themselves.

“School kids have First Amendment rights — they’re not checked at the door,” she said. “The exceptions to this are if it’s disruptive or interferes with the educational message.”

Representatives from the Hate-Free Schools Coalition disagree with the county division’s stance and said the legality of such a decision already has been well-established, specifically citing the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case.

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that black armbands worn by students to protest the Vietnam War were not a disruption.

However, in 2003 the county schools lost a similar dress-code case, which Giaramita said has made the division more cautious when it comes to dress code restrictions.

The School Board lost that case, Newsom v. the Albemarle County School Board, a $150,000 lawsuit filed by a sixth-grade student at Jack Jouett Middle School who had been told by the administration that he couldn’t wear a National Rifle Association shirt. The shirt had silhouettes of men pointing guns across the NRA logo.

After an initial verdict in favor of the board, Newsom appealed the decision, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the earlier verdict.

Citing in part the Tinker verdict, Senior Judge Clyde Hamilton said the middle school had been unconstitutionally overbroad in banning messages on clothing relating to weapons under its dress code.

“Because there was no evidence presented at the preliminary injunction stage of the case demonstrating that clothing worn by students at Jouett containing messages related to weapons, nonviolent, nonthreatening, or otherwise, ever substantially disrupted school operations or interfered with the rights of others, the number of examples of the unnecessarily broad nature of the 2002-2003 Jouett Dress Code is practically limitless,” he wrote.

Though the Hate-Free Schools Coalition has cited examples of other school districts — such as in Orange County, North Carolina, where the coalition started — that have banned Confederate symbols in the wake of last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally, Giaramita said the board is still looking to its interpretation of the Tinker case for guidance.

“The real issue has to do with two different kinds of responsibility,” Giaramita said. “If the school district loses the case, then the coalition doesn’t have to pay, the taxpayers do.”

Lara Harrison, a representative for the coalition, said members of the organization were involved in a community panel this spring that helped to draft a new dress code for Albemarle schools that specifically banned Confederate symbols, along with KKK and Nazi symbols.

The last version of the policy they saw kept these bans, but the final one submitted to the School Board in June did not. This is not acceptable, said Harrison.

“The Confederate flag is an image that is racially intimidating, very specifically to Charlottesville because of the terrorist attack that happened in August last year,” she said. “We were never told the language banning them had been removed.”

On Thursday, Harrison said she was disappointed with how the School Board handled the meeting. Having given advance notice to the board that the coalition would be attending, Harrison said she was surprised the county had not opted to move the meeting to a larger room.

Following the abrupt adjournment of the meeting, Harrison said the coalition and like-minded community members want a chance to speak with board members.

“Albemarle should create a forum to listen to the community, without any gate-keeping or white fragility,” she said.

Giaramita said the School Board might take up the dress code next year, following the adoption of its anti-racist policy later this year.

The policy is currently being drafted by a panel of nine students from the county’s summer leadership program, as well as a consultant from UVa. Giaramita said the division is hopeful that the anti-racist policy will address many of the concerns expressed by community members.

Despite requests from School Board member Graham Paige, the Hate-Free Schools Coalition has not been involved with the drafting process for the anti-racist policy.

However, Harrison said the development of the policy, which the coalition first suggested in February, was always intended to be separate from the dress code.

“It has always been the coalition’s stance to focus firstly on changing the dress code,” she said. “The need for one does not negate the need for the other.”

The Albemarle County School Board’s next meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 13, though the board could call a special meeting sooner if it can schedule a quorum.


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Residents express concerns at Cherry Avenue small area plan meeting

Community members from the Fifeville area of Charlottesville gathered at Buford Middle School on Sunday afternoon to provide input on what they want to see for the neighborhood’s future.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is working on a small area plan for the Cherry Avenue corridor, and has been seeking input from residents in a number of ways, including Sunday’s open house.

In June, Nick Morrison, a planner with the TJPDC, started attending front-porch discussions with residents, where small groups of people would meet at a neighbor’s house to hear about the plan and give feedback.

The idea came from a member of the task force working with the TJPDC on the plan, who wanted to engage other neighbors who couldn’t make it to larger meetings.

“I think being on people’s own turf allows them that opportunity to really be open and honest with us, and it’s not always positive, but it’s good to get that feedback,” Morrison said.

The effort was driven by the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, which established a committee and ultimately drafted a visioning document. In 2016, the city Planning Commission designated the corridor for the next small area planning initiative.

“Gentrification and displacement are huge concerns in the neighborhood, [as is] being able to provide affordable housing for the long term,” said Alisa Hefner, treasurer of the neighborhood association.

According to American Community Survey data posted at the open house, about 3,700 people live in Fifeville and 56 percent of the neighborhood’s population is black. More than half of the neighborhood’s current residents moved in since 2010. The median household income is $36,400, according to the data.

Hefner said the association wants to see action items come out of the small area plan process.

“We really don’t want another plan that’s going to sit on the shelf — we want to be able to have real tools that the city can use, as well as the neighborhood, and things we can do as residents to have the neighborhood in the future that we want to see,” she said.

At the open house, attendees were able to learn about small area planning, hear about the process so far and give their own feedback. They also could participate in an interactive zoning exercise.

The area has a variety of zoning, including different types of residential, mixed use and commercial.

Prior feedback that was presented at the open house showed residents want more sidewalks and parking spaces, and are concerned about the effect of increasing density and rentals on parking. They also worry about increasing traffic in the area.

Many were concerned about what they were seeing on nearby West Main Street.

“I feel like we’re succumbing to [the University of Virginia], and the buildings are getting bigger and prettier on Main Street and trying to hide everything else behind,” said Felice Boling-Key, who lives on 7 ½ Street Southwest.

She also expressed concern about the effect of new development on infrastructure, and has been experiencing issues with stormwater runoff flooding her property every time it rains, she said.

“I find that a lot of what’s being done on Cherry is not looking at the impact it is bringing to the surrounding neighborhoods and streets,” she said.

Matthew Gillikin, who lives on Orangedale Avenue, said he thinks Fifeville has the potential to lead the city in creating affordable housing through potential new land-use policies.

“We have a lot of land that can be developed or is underdeveloped and we have a higher portion of low-income people than a lot of parts of the city,” he said. “Things are going to change no matter what. I think this process that they’re doing is a really nice opportunity to let things change in a way that supports the community.”

Nathan Walton, who lives on Forest Ridge Road, said he was enjoying the small area plan process but it was bringing up a lot of questions for him.

“The relationship of functionality/justice and aesthetics on the other side — I’m trying to figure out in my own head how to navigate those two things,” he said,

Walton said he was thinking about what it means to respect the wishes of current residents while also thinking proactively about the fact that a transient city like Charlottesville also means new people moving in.

“How do we make this space accessible for any type of person who wants to move into this neighborhood? I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I feel like this brings a lot of questions up for me,” he said, with a laugh.

The TJPDC will compile the feedback gathered at Sunday’s meeting and use it to start to develop recommendations. There are plans to have a smaller open house in the fall with a draft recommendations list for people to respond to, and ultimately the final plan will be presented at the end of this year.


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Nationally successful robotics team for area teens seeks new members

Robot engineering and coding might seem complex, but that doesn’t stop the Cavalier Robotics team, which held a recruitment open house Sunday.

The group of about 25 high school students from Albemarle, Greene, Nelson, Fluvanna, Orange and Augusta counties and the city of Charlottesville competes as Team 619 in the national FIRST Robotics Competition.

With the help of adult and college student mentors, the high-schoolers work to build and program a 120-pound robot that can complete various tasks.

Founded in 2001, the team begins its season in August, preparing for the competition period, which runs from January to March. Students don’t just handle engineering and coding — some also work on the business side, including website design, social media and planning.

On Sunday, returning team members were playing with last year’s competition robot at the University of Virginia’s Observatory Mountain Engineering Facility. Students cited the team’s camaraderie and seeing the robot come together over many weeks as their favorite things about the program.

Lead mentor Christina Burkhart has been involved with the program for three years. She said students who first get involved with engineering through the robotics team often go on to study it in college.

“We’ve had several students go on to study engineering at Virginia Tech after graduation,” Burkhart said.

Last year’s team saw unprecedented success, winning its first Innovation in Control award. The team also won an award for industrial design.

According to Burkhart, one thing that sets Team 619 apart is its wide range of students. Unlike teams from individual schools, Team 619 is open to students from all over the area, including public, private and home-schooled students.

While some students come in with previous robotics experience from middle school, it’s not uncommon to join the team without experience, Burkhart said. The team is seeking passionate students who are interested in engineering, coding or business.

The team also is looking for businesses to become sponsors.

Students or parents looking for more information can visit the team’s Facebook page at facebook.com/frc619. A second open house is planned for 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 9 at 765 Reservoir Road.