Facing local criticism and moved by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Orange County school board unanimously adopted a new student dress code Monday night that bans the Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan symbols and clothing and swastikas from all district schools.
The board’s vote came during a regular business meeting at Stanback Middle School attended by dozens of citizens who came to support the ban against the Confederate flag, which is widely viewed as a symbol of white supremacy and racial hatred.
Shortly before the vote, school board Chairman Steve Halkiotis took issue with critics who he said wrongly accused the board of not listening and not caring about children.
He also hinted that the board, which came prepared to adopt a policy that some criticized as not being explicit in its opposition to the Confederate flag, had been moved by the events over the weekend that ended in the death of a woman who was protesting the gathering of white supremacists.
“The tragic loss of a 32-year-old woman, an innocent human being, the tragic loss of two Virginia state troopers who were there to provide for the health, safety and welfare of all people in the city of Charlottesville cannot go unnoticed,” Halkiotis said.
In a statement, Superintendent Todd Wirt said the new policy helps teachers and staff protect students and the learning environment.
“The new policy gives our staff the permission to ensure that the learning environment in each of our schools and in each of our classrooms is free of intimidation and distraction with regards to dress and symbols of speech,” Wirt said. “I, along with all of my colleagues in Orange County Schools, have been entrusted by our community to not only educate our students but to protect them and empower them.”
He urged parents to speak with their children about the issue.
“Talk to your children about how the things that they wear and say, do in fact have an influence on others and the learning environment in our schools,” Wirt said. “We can and will continue to look for ways to improve our policies, but policy will not change the hearts and minds of our community. That will happen through open hearts, open minds, and open dialogue.”
Although the policy clearly states the Confederate flag is banned from school grounds, School board member Matt Roberts asked for clarity around clothing that can’t be easily seen by others.
Specifically, Roberts wanted to know if belt buckles with the flag on them are banned if a student’s shirt is pulled over it and also whether socks with the flag are also banned.
School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said belt buckles and socks with the offending symbols cannot be worn to schools under the policy.
Here is what the policy says:
“Clothing and accessories are not to substantially disrupt the education process. Students are not to wear clothing, buttons, patches, jewelry, make-up, face/body paint or any other items with words phrases, symbols, pictures or signs that are indecent, profane, or substantially disruptive, including items that are reasonably expected to intimidate other students on the basis of race (for example KKK, swastika, and the Confederate Flag), color, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or religious affiliation.”
Despite Halkiotis saying early in the meeting that the board had had a change of heart about the policy and intended to make it stronger, nearly two dozen speakers streamed to the microphone during the public comment portion of the meeting to demand that the board ban the flag from schools.
Many also criticized the board for dragging its feet for more than seven months to reach a decision they contend most citizens already knew was the right one.
“We hope that Charlottesville has been enough to show you guys what this flag really represents,” said Jessica Taylor, “We hope you have seen enough and received enough evidence to understand that that flag should not be in our school, it needs to be banned right now. That needs to be the language cut and dry.”
In an interview, Jamie Paulen, an Orange County resident and member of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, said the group was surprised by Monday’s development that added the Confederate flag ban to the policy.
“We’re very pleased,” Paulen said. “We have worked many months to obtain this result and we couldn’t be happier.”
Paulen said the group will continue to keep a close eye on the schools to ensure the ban is properly enforced.
“The way I see it, fighting racism is never gonna be over,” Paulen said.
Neither Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools nor Durham Public Schools ban the Confederate flag. Chatham County Schools bans the flag on student clothing, according to its code of student conduct.