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Albemarle High School senior Rajaah Alagib speaks about an anti-racism policy draft during an Albemarle County School Board meeting at the Albemarle County Office Building on Aug. 30, 2018. At the start of the meeting, a protest erupted against a proposed dress code policy under review, resulting in several arrests.

The Albemarle County School Board will return to the division’s student dress code policy Thursday night, five months after tabling the issue.

The dress code has not appeared on a School Board agenda since Aug. 30, when six people were arrested as activists rallied outside the board’s meeting and called for the division to ban Confederate imagery and symbols of white supremacy in its student dress code.

Board Chairman Jonno Alcaro said he plans to give each board member a few minutes to share their thoughts on the dress code and then discuss next steps.

The agenda item was prompted by board member Katrina Callsen, who called on the board to talk about the issue, which has been the subject of public comments for months.

“At this point, our decision not to discuss the issue seems either punitive in nature (because we don’t want to reward questionable protest strategies) or avoidant (because we don’t want to have to decide on controversial issues),” Callsen wrote in an email to board members. “The punting of the issue was hinged on the rationale that the anti-racism policy might address the Confederate flag debate. It does not.”

The board meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building.

The School Board also will discuss the sixth version of the comprehensive anti-racism policy that was developed by high school students. The policy would require annual reports about discipline in schools, anti-racism training for staff and changes to how students are recommended for advanced courses.

Alcaro said the board came to a consensus last summer to table a discussion about the dress code until the anti-racism policy was adopted.

“I acknowledge that the anti-racism policy took a little longer than we had expected,” he said, adding that he wasn’t criticizing the students who worked on it.

Alcaro declined to say where he stood on the issue of a ban.

“I’d prefer to have that come out in the conversation,” he said.

* * *

The Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, a group made up of parents, students, school staff and community members, started advocating for a ban last February after successfully lobbying the division to remove Lee-Jackson Day from its calendar.

Lara Harrison with Hate Free Schools said she’s cautiously optimistic ahead of Thursday’s discussion.

“It’s time for the board to publicly state where they stand,” she said.

Harrison said racism in schools negatively affects a student’s ability to learn, as Confederate imagery and other symbols of white supremacy can instill fear or intimidate students of color.

“If you don’t feel safe, you can’t learn,” she said.

The issue of a ban became more urgent after the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017.

Last November, the Charlottesville City School Board passed a resolution prohibiting students from wearing clothing with Confederate imagery, along with Nazi swastikas or images and language associated with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.

Those depictions would “create a substantial disruption to the learning environment in our school system,” according to the resolution. The board cited the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017, as a reason for the ban.

* * *

Early in 2018, Albemarle County school officials met with Harrison and other representatives from Hate Free Schools to discuss the student dress code.

On July 12, board members were presented with a version of the policy that would have banned student dress promoting “hate-group related activities” as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

However, the School Board rejected that language because of legal concerns and it had also decided to move forward with the anti-racism policy. The board was supposed to discuss another draft of the student dress code policy at its Aug. 23 meeting, but that meeting was cut short because of protests.

Former board Chairwoman Kate Acuff wrote a letter to the editor to The Daily Progress after that meeting.

“Although I agree that the symbolism can be hurtful and cause emotional distress to the young people we are charged with educating, the wearing of Confederate symbols, as well any other symbols, is also an expression of constitutionally protected free speech, as emphatically held by the Supreme Court in its 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case,” she wrote.

In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court said the students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property. Additionally, school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process.

In 2003, the division lost a $150,000 lawsuit to a sixth-grader who wanted to wear a National Rifle Association T-shirt to class.

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Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress and author of The Cheat Sheet, an education-focused newsletter. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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