More than two dozen community members asked the Albemarle County School Board at a Thursday meeting to amend the dress code to disallow Confederate symbols on clothing. However, members decided to table a proposal for further consideration.
After holding three meetings with community members, the school division drafted a new code that would ban attire with hate symbols as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
However, according to Lara Harrison, a representative for the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, this was not what the school district had agreed to during their private meetings. An explicit ban on Confederate symbols had been included in a draft that the organization had been privy to, but it was not in the version before the board on Thursday.
“It does absolutely nothing to show that ACPS will do anything to take a stand against white supremacist violence,” she said.
The language in the draft she saw had mirrored that of other school districts that had changed dress codes in the wake of the deadly Unite the Right rally, Harrison said, noting that the language had stood up to legal challenge.
Several other people spoke to the board, asking for a ban and pointing out the achievement gap between white and black students.
One Albemarle parent, Megan Argaud, said it’s harder for students of color in the county to achieve, and more needs to be done to help them, including a ban on Confederate symbols.
“When a flower does not bloom, we don’t blame a flower; we blame the environment,” she said.
Mike Moxham, a teacher at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, shared a story about a student who wore a shirt with the words “The South Will Rise Again” to class regularly.
The student didn’t think anything of the shirt, Moxham said, but it made students of color in his class uncomfortable. Eventually, he asked the student to cover the shirt up because of how it made his peers feel.
“My students have the right to feel safe, and this imagery makes them feel unsafe,” he said. “They all deserve the same level of respect, and they all deserve to feel safe.”
After public comment, Superintendent Matt Haas clarified that the student conduct change in front of the board on Thursday was just a first reading and that there are always at least two readings before a change.
“We recognize that strong feelings exist in many communities across our country on a wide range of political and social issues, including the display of Confederate insignia,” he said.
The topic of banning Confederate symbols first came up this past winter, when a group of concerned parents and community members talked to the School Board about racism in county schools.
Led by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, speakers asked for the schools to remove Lee-Jackson Day from the school calendar and to amend the dress code to discourage Confederate symbols.
In February, the school district said it would remove Lee-Jackson Day from its future school calendars, and the Office of Community Engagement has established a discussion group to facilitate dialogue about how to combat racism in the schools.
Bernard Hairston, chief of the Office of Community Engagement, presented the current proposed policy to change the dress code. One of the most significant changes Hairston pointed out was the removal of language relating to punishment.
“Should a violation of the dress code occur, an appropriate remedy will include a focus on helping students understand how their choice of clothing impacts division commitments to valuing and respecting diversity to improve our ability to serve racially, culturally and ethnically diverse students, families and communities,” Hairston said, quoting the proposal.
Board member David Oberg said he appreciated this change but that he shared concerns made during public comment about the reliability of the SPLC.
Amanda Farley, the senior assistant county attorney, cited the Hardwick v. Heyward case as the most recent legal challenge to dress code changes.
In that 2013 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with school administrators in South Carolina who prohibited a student from wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt because of its potential to cause a disruption at the school, which had a long history of segregation.
Farley said that a similar argument could be made for Albemarle schools, but she said there may not be enough evidence to support it.
Board member Jonno Alcaro suggested adopting an anti-racism policy in addition to dress code changes to make it explicit that racism of any kind would not be tolerated in the district.
An anti-racism policy would take time to develop, said Hairston, and it would not be ready in time for the upcoming school year.
After a long discussion, the board opted not to do a formal reading of the dress code proposal and instead study ways to combat racism in the schools. Thursday’s discussion did not count as a first reading of the student conduct change.
The discussion is expected to continue at the next board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 9 in the Albemarle County Office Building.