After more than a year of listening to comments regarding a ban on Confederate imagery, the Albemarle County School Board soon will hear a plan to prohibit such images in its student dress code.
Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas will present his ideas to board members later this month on reinterpreting the division’s dress code policy and prohibiting students from wearing Confederate imagery on school grounds.
Haas said he has the latitude to interpret policy and is supported by guidance from the division’s attorney. The plan would include a letter to students and families explaining which clothing items or images are no longer permitted on school grounds.
Confederate imagery and the climate it creates in schools can be a health issue for students of color and impede their ability to learn, he said. The division’s School Health Advisory Board recently came to a similar conclusion, according to an email sent to School Board members this week.
“That’s what I’m hanging my hat on to say that I can forecast substantial disruption,” he said. “It may not be a brawl or a riot or something of that nature, but one by one, it’s disrupting student learning.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that schools only can censor student speech if it causes a substantial disruption.
Haas also cited the events of Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, along with the region’s history of slavery and resistance to integration as reasons for a ban.
“My feeling is that most reasonable people in this day and age understand that in this area, in Charlottesville, it’s not appropriate,” he said.
Banning Confederate imagery and other symbols of white supremacy have been repeatedly discussed in public comments at board meetings for nearly a year. Board members discussed the issue for more than an hour Thursday night and were split with three for, three against and Chairman Jonno Alcaro undecided.
The meeting was the first time since Aug. 30 that the School Board itself discussed the issue. Six people were arrested at the August meeting after disruptions occurred.
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Tensions flared once again Thursday. Attendees spoke up, yelled or engaged in silent protest as board members voiced their opinions. Alcaro gave the room a warning and threatened to dismiss anyone who disrupted the meeting.
Board members ultimately opted to continue the conversation at their next meeting. No vote was scheduled to occur on the agenda.
Near the end of Thursday’s discussion, Haas told board members that he was “getting impatient” and would like some direction. He asked for permission to come up with a plan.
“I feel a lot of times like I’m sitting on my hands, waiting for some direction from the board,” he said.
Haas said his plan would include frequent updates at board meetings on how many students are found to be wearing these images and how the school handles it.
“I’d like to have this be operational, so when school starts again in August, this is just part of what we do,” he said in an interview Friday.
The changes could be ready to roll out across the division by the first week of March, Haas said. Division staff will work with principals next week to explain the move and how to deal with situations.
Haas said he thinks allowing Confederate images in the schools could be having a negative effect on student achievement, though causality would be hard to determine, he conceded.
“But if making this change and communicating loudly and clearly that we don’t accept the notion of white supremacy tacitly by allowing people to wear these T-shirts in our schools or hats, that will have a positive impact, I believe,” he said.
Board member Katrina Callsen also brought up the division’s achievement gap in her comments supporting a ban.
“We are not the model for racial equity,” Callsen said.
Last school year, black students in elementary schools division-wide scored more than 15 points lower than their peers on English and math state tests, according to state data.
Board members David Oberg and Graham Paige also supported a ban. All three said they were willing to go to court to defend the ban.
“You have to be willing to say I’m going to take the lawsuit and if we lose, we lose,” Oberg said. “... I think we can make this case … Let’s go down in flames doing what we think is right.”
Steve Koleszar, Kate Acuff and Jason Buyaki said they were opposed because of legal concerns over infringing on First Amendment rights. 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.
“I revere the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Koleszar said.
By the end of the discussion, Koleszar said he wanted to look at the research of how Confederate symbols affect student health, as well as the information from the School Health Advisory Board.
“Because that’s the one thing that gives me pause even though my great belief is in the First Amendment,” he said.
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Haas, who took over as superintendent in July, hasn’t presented his idea to reinterpret the dress code to board members before. He said division staff didn’t think they had the legal authority to say to students that they couldn’t wear clothing with Confederate images. After Aug. 12, 2017, Haas said he wanted to proactively tell students not to wear such clothing but was advised against it by a county attorney.
He credited the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County for bringing attention to the issue and keeping it on his radar. Ten representatives of the local advocacy group spoke during public comment of Thursday’s meeting.
Another factor in his decision-making was the addition of Ross Holden, the division’s first full-time attorney hired last fall.
“I think that Ross’s analysis of current law tells us that if we maintain a facially neutral dress code policy and use the current context, we should be in good shape to prohibit these kinds of memes,” Haas said.
Haas said he doesn’t have division-level data on the prevalence of Confederate imagery on students’ clothing in schools.
“From my standpoint, I don’t think it is extremely prevalent,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily the point. The point is that if it’s one student who does it and impacts one student, then it’s one student too many.”
The division plans to pilot an anonymous reporting app for students, staff and parents. The fiscal year 2020 budget request allocates $10,000 for the software. Haas said the reporting system should help.
“I think that will be another way for us to not only collect data but also to help students,” he said. “We’ll be able to get to the bottom of this stuff a whole lot faster.”
The board will meet next at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 28 in Lane Auditorium in the County Office Building.