An emotionally charged issue at recent Albemarle County School Board meetings is whether the board should amend the student dress code to ban the wearing of clothing displaying Confederate symbols.

Some in our community and elsewhere have strong views favoring such a ban and arguing that Confederate symbolism is uniquely threatening, divisive and dismissive of the feelings of others.

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.

In Tinker, the Supreme Court held that students do not check their constitutional rights when they walk in the door of a public school. Only in limited circumstances may school divisions restrict that free speech, and that is when the messages are obscene and/or encourage criminal acts, and when they disrupt the educational environment.

Some schools have addressed this challenge by requiring school uniforms or banning all messages on clothing — even sports logos. Other efforts to ban specific content have come with a high cost; many school divisions, including our own, have been successfully sued for just that.

The policy changes we are contemplating go beyond the symbols and are looking at our anti-discrimination policies, strengthening anti-bullying efforts and promoting a positive school climate.

Also, the changes to the dress code we were scheduled to address recently would shift our disciplinary actions upon dress code violations to educational opportunities. Sitting down with students who wear clothing with offensive messaging and talking about its impact on others has often resulted in changing hearts and minds.

I believe underlying issues are addressing racism, discrimination and school climate to promote learning of all of our students. The differences in our approach vs. that of some of our most vocal commenters are over the most effective, enduring and constitutionally acceptable way to deal with the addressing sentiments behind racially charged symbols and promoting a positive, inclusive school environment.

Screaming obscenities and threats at School Board meetings does little to advance these goals.

Kate L. Acuff, Albemarle County

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