Students in Albemarle County Public Schools will no longer be allowed to wear any symbols, lettering or insignia of organizations or groups associated with white supremacy, racial hatred or violence.
Such images disrupt the school environment, schools Superintendent Matt Haas said Thursday.
“Disruptive speech is not protected,” Haas said.
The change is part of Haas’ reinterpretation of the dress code, which he presented to the School Board on Thursday night. Those who do wear such symbols, lettering or insignia will be treated like other dress code violations, which includes counseling and restorative measures.
Board members didn’t have to vote on the plan.
“You’ve already given me the authority by hiring me,” Haas told board members.
Haas plans to implement the change in March, but he’s not revealing the specific day. Parents and students will receive notice via email.
“We have no higher obligation than to ensure that when every single student comes into our schools, they enter a safe and nurturing place, a place that provides for and promotes their healthy academic, social and emotional development,” Haas said.
Haas’ action doesn’t mean the School Board members cannot vote to ban Confederate imagery or other symbols of white supremacy. During public comment, community members commended Haas but continued to call for a ban.
School Board members seemed to support Haas’ plan. Board Chairman Jonno Alcaro and member David Oberg were absent from the meeting.
Board member Steve Koleszar said he’s philosophically opposed to a ban and wasn’t happy with Haas’ decision. However, he deferred to Haas’ experience in schools.
“He knows the impact of these images in a practical sense,” Koleszar said.
School Board members discussed their stance on a ban two weeks ago, returning to the issue for the first time in five months. At the end of their discussion, Haas told board members that he was “getting impatient” and wanted some direction. He asked for permission to come up with the plan he presented.
He apologized to the School Board on Thursday for that comment but said he was worried.
“Like most problems, this situation is not going to get better by ignoring it,” he said.
Board members have been hesitant to amend the division’s dress code because of legal concerns. Haas’s plan doesn’t change the viewpoint-neutral policy.
Haas has said he has the latitude to interpret policy and is supported by guidance from the division’s attorney, Ross Holden. The specific guidance is privileged, spokesman Phil Giaramita said.
According to a news release about the decision, Holden conducted a legal review of court rulings and confirmed that school divisions can take proactive steps to prevent disruptions to the learning environment and need not wait for a disturbance to occur.
According to the division’s current dress code, clothing that interferes with or disrupts the educational environment is unacceptable. Additionally, clothing with language or images that are vulgar, discriminatory or obscene, that promote illegal or violent conduct or that contain threats are all prohibited.
Haas cited the deadly Unite the Right rally and the region’s history of slavery and resistance to integration in his presentation as reasons for the ban, as well as examples of racism in local schools.
“One day, I’d like to stand before the board and community and say that there are no acts of racism in our schools,” he said. “But today is not that day.”
In a 2016 high school climate survey, 35 percent of Albemarle High School students said that students are teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity, along with 26 percent of Monticello students and 18 percent of Western Albemarle students.
“You take those percentages and you translate them into numbers, those are big numbers of kids saying that’s our climate in our school system, that it’s OK to do. Because it happens,” he said.
Haas said in the last two years, there have been instances in middle schools of students using the “n” word in threats and as insults, playing games made to simulate white supremacy, making fun of black skin and talking about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler coming back. He also said some students had decided to attend another school because of racial issues.
In the high schools, he said there have been drawings of swastikas, use of the “n” word, a student pretending to “shoot” black students with a piece of wood and comments made to a junior varsity player about his seat on the bus.
He noted that those incidents are only the ones brought to school principals.
Haas also included the recent findings of the division’s School Health Advisory Board in his presentation. The board has said such images affect a student’s physical health as well as their ability to learn.
“Exposure to racist symbols undermines the stated core value of ACPS that every student ‘has the right to safety, mutual respect and learning,’” the advisory board wrote in an email to Haas and School Board members.
After the change is rolled out in March, staff will present data on implementation at board meetings. Haas’ goal is that the ban will be standard operating procedure for the 2019-20 school year.