Durham County

Durham school board condemns ‘hate speech, hate crimes,’ asks DPS to consider dress code change

A student wore this t-shirt to Orange High School in March. It says, “If This Flag Offends You ... YOU NEED A HISTORY LESSON.” The Durham Public Schools is considering a change in its dress code that would ban such attire.
A student wore this t-shirt to Orange High School in March. It says, “If This Flag Offends You ... YOU NEED A HISTORY LESSON.” The Durham Public Schools is considering a change in its dress code that would ban such attire. Submitted photo

Citing the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education Thursday adopted a resolution condemning “hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred.”

And in a second action, the board, at the urging of School board Chairman Mike Lee, asked the Durham Public Schools’ administration to take a look at strengthening its student dress code to possibly include a ban of the Confederate flag and other symbols of intimidation.

Lee said in an interview that the events in Charlottesville served to jump start the conversation about the student dress code and free speech rights.

“I do believe in freedom of speech, however, there’s a limit to that,” Lee said. “When it comes to bullying or intimidation and things of that sort, we have to draw a line.”

Lee said the Durham Public Schools is committed to creating “a safe space, a bully-free zone, an intimidation-free zone” for students and that doing so could possibly include banning the Confederate flag and other intimidating symbols.

“Some people might say it’s free speech, I say it’s intimidating speech,” Lee said.

The administration is expected to bring the dress code proposal back to the board for consideration at its Aug. 24 regular business meeting.

The proposal follows the Orange County school board, which on Monday strengthened its dress code to ban the Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan items, swastikas and other such symbols from schools.

“We would be very happy to bring back an expanded dress code policy as early as next Thursday,” said DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme, referring to Aug. 24.

L’Homme noted that Orange County worked on its policy for nearly a year. He said DPS would likely use that district’s policy as one model to develop its own expanded policy.

“I think they have done a lot of the work for us, so I think we would be able to come back with a good proposal to expand several parts of the dress code policy,” L’Homme said.

Currently, DPS’ student dress codes gives principals the authority to restrict certain types of clothing if it is “reasonably likely to create a substantial and material disruption to the educational process or to the operation of the school.”

School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe said the current policy, which relies on principals to enforce the dress code seems to work in upholding the values of the district.

Unruhe said he is concerned about listing the kinds of symbols deemed likely to cause school disruption in the proposed policy expansion.

“I worry a little bit about the temptation to list certain items,” Unruhe said. “In my experience, as soon as you make a list, the next day students are going to bring something not on that list and feel that we have actually authorized that item because it’s not on the list that we banned.”

Citizen support for banning the Confederate flag

Several citizens commented on the proposal Thursday, and all encouraged the board to be clear that Durham Public Schools won’t tolerate symbols of hate and intimidation.

Ronda Taylor Bullock, a DPS parent, urged the board to be clear about the symbols it targets in the expanded policy.

“I want to applaud you effort to be straight forward and address this issue head on,” Bullock said. “The issue of naming hate symbols that are inappropriate for our school district, I also echo that it’s OK to name specific objects and images.”

She said regardless of whether the board names the images to restrict, students will continue to push boundaries.

“You just have to be prepared for it,” Bullock said.

Barbara Karas, a former educator, said it’s critical that a stronger policy is put in place.

“I want to support you and let you know that this is the right thing to do and applaud you,” Karas said. “It’s critical that you have this in place now.”

Thursday’s speakers included Latarndra Strong, founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, who led the charge to strengthen the dress code policy in Orange County after she began to notice the Confederate flag appearing at her child’s school.

“I want to encourage you to pass a plan that is really explicit and leaves no room for what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Strong said.

Strong told the board that she received a message from a former Durham Public Schools student who attended Chewning Junior High School (now the School for Creative Studies) in 1988 when 14 students were suspended for wearing Confederate flags sewn onto their clothing to honor what they said was “Southern Pride Day.”

“After seeing the events in Charlottesville over the weekend, she said it brought back those memories and that it was an extremely difficult week for her,” Strong said.

The former student, Andrea Bigner Koslow, also shared her memories of the events at the former Chewning Junior High with The Herald-Sun.

Here is how she described the day the students returned to Chewning and the KKK surrounded the school:

“Some time after the suspensions, a large group of KKK members showed up at the school in trucks with flags and on motorcycles and surrounded it. At the time, there was no term shelter in place, but that's what we did. The school was locked down. We were told to move away from the windows and not look outside. It was frightening,” Koslow wrote.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645