An emergency Albemarle County School Board meeting again devolved into chaos as a parallel meeting outside the room was broken up and six people were arrested.
Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff opened Thursday’s meeting by remarking on the division’s proposed dress policy, which has been criticized by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition for not explicitly banning Confederate images.
“We’re working on changing the policy from discipline to educational; change is underway,” Acuff said.
She addressed last week’s meeting, which was abruptly ended after only one person spoke during the public comment period.
“We encourage public comment in an appropriate and dignified way in our public meetings, but we will not tolerate disruption,” Acuff said.
As Acuff began to speak, muffled cheers and chants could be heard. In the meeting chamber’s lobby, about 50 community members filled rows of folding chairs, some wearing teal shirts that said “Ban it now.”
Lara Harrison announced that Hate-Free Schools was leading a “people’s meeting” and gave a speech reiterating demands to ban Confederate imagery and saying the School Board had refused to work with community members.
The board was grandstanding, said Harrison, who called Acuff’s reiteration of public comment rules a threat of violence against community members.
Harrison called for Acuff’s resignation and said board member Jason Buyaki also should resign for wearing a tie with Confederate flags at the last week’s meeting.
“We are not going anywhere, and the more they try to silence us, the louder we will be,” Harrison said, to growing claps and cheers.
After the meeting, Buyaki said he wore the tie as a historical lesson about "various flags flown over the U.S.," and not as a statement on the dress code proposal.
The Hate-Free Schools Coalition, founded in North Carolina, has been asking for a ban since the fall, saying Confederate images make students of color fear for their safety and do not create an equal learning environment. The Albemarle school district fears that banning Confederate symbols would open it up to legal liability for violating students’ First Amendment rights.
In 2003, the county schools lost a similar dress-code case in which a student arrived to class wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt. Citing in part the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines, Senior Judge Clyde Hamilton said Jack Jouett Middle School had been unconstitutionally overbroad in banning messages on clothing related to weapons under its dress code.
In the Tinker case, judges upheld students’ right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, saying they retained their freedom of speech unless they were materially and substantially interfering with the operation of the school.
Thursday night, as another speaker started to lead a chant in the lobby, police began asking people to quiet down.
A speaker refused to lower her voice and refused a request to disperse; she was escorted out.
As others continued to refuse to leave, police handcuffed and escorted several more people out of the room. One man allegedly kicked an officer and was pushed to the ground, where he continued to struggle, saying an officer was hurting him.
According to Albemarle police, four people were arrested outside the meeting, and two people were arrested after becoming disorderly inside Lane Auditorium. They were taken to Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail to be processed.
In a post-meeting statement, division spokesman Phil Giaramita said the “School Board’s focus tonight was on meeting its constitutional and legal responsibilities. Tonight’s protest was a concern only to the extent that it could have once again disrupted the ability of the School Board to complete the business of the school division. That did not happen.”
Robert Tracci, Albemarle’s commonwealth’s attorney, also weighed in on the protest. “While I will not speak to pending criminal cases, the right of free expression provides no right to engage in criminal misconduct,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Those who violate the law under any pretext within the jurisdiction of the County of Albemarle will be appropriately prosecuted by the office I am privileged to serve.”
Meanwhile, the public meeting continued inside, but community members were not being let back inside the conference room if they had left. One woman was escorted out of the meeting for saying Acuff was being ridiculous.
During the planned discussion of a hate-free school policy under development, several students from county schools stood and offered their thoughts.
Rajaah Alagib, a senior at Albemarle High School, said she hopes student input will be taken seriously as the board continues to work on the policy, which is expected to be formalized by the end of the year.
“We, as students of the Albemarle community, have been given an opportunity to address issues of utmost importance,” she said. “By having students write this policy — the ones who must live through this policy — we create a force.”
After the board moved to a budget work session, Alagib said in an interview that it was important for students to see both sides of advocacy — speaking before the board, as well as protesting.
“By students having the opportunity to experience both sides of a heated debate, students are able to take matters into their own hands and create the most just and encompassing initiatives for change,” Alagib said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a protester who was arrested and asked to leave.