Orange County

Chairman under fire as Orange schools debate Confederate flag ban

Members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition protest at Monday night’s Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting at A.L. Stanback Middle School.
Members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition protest at Monday night’s Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting at A.L. Stanback Middle School. contributed photo

The Orange County Schools Board of Education, enmired in a months-long debate over whether to ban the Confederate flag, re-elected Steve Halkiotis as chairman Monday night in a 4 to 3 vote.

Brenda Stephens, who applauded ban supporters who spoke at the meeting, won the opposing three votes.

The school board has created an equity task force it says will address racial and other social-justice issues.

But supporters of the Confederate flag ban want the board to do more.

Latarndra Strong, founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, said Halkiotis has ignored the community.

“I’ve been here a short time,” Strong said. “Maybe there was a time when Dr. Halkiotis was contributing to our school system in a way that was helpful, but I’m having a hard time seeing that now when he’s dismissed our community for so long.”

Halkiotis has been on the school board since 2008. Before that, he served as a teacher and administrator in Orange County schools for 31 years.

Tony McKnight was re-elected as vice chairman, also in a 4 to 3 vote.

During the meeting, members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition held signs saying, “Cowards don’t get re-election,” “Listen to your community” and “Halkiotis for school bully!”

Efforts to reach Halkiotis by phone and email for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. In the past he has said the Hate Free Coalition and its supporters are not helping their cause by continuing to pressure the board.

“I know they were serious,” he said in an April interview. “I know there were issues they cared about. I didn’t have to hear it a second, third and fourth time.”

“That’s not how government works. That’s not how the school board works,” he said. “We will go through a very methodical process and then we’ll make a decision.”

Student dress code

The re-election of the board’s leaders followed public comments by 17 people again calling for a ban of the Confederate flag in the student dress code and on school grounds.

Speakers said the board’s decision to delay a vote in order to expand the dress-code policy to cover symbols and language offensive to LGBT students and students with disabilities was unnecessary.

Patricia Clayton, president of the Northern Orange County NAACP, said the board had enough information to act now.

“I am here to ask the Orange County school board to please move forward with the proposed dress code policy, which let every student know that symbols and words that are racially inflammatory are not allowed in Orange County schools,” she said.

Phyllis Portie-Ascott, a mother of two Orange County students from Hillsborough, said she wants the board “to make tough decisions in the face of diversity.”

“While my family has been blessed with the ability to exercise different options when choosing a school for our children, we have chosen Orange County as our first choice in education – even before the (school district’s) new motto,” she said. “So now, it is our request that you choose our children first.”

Chuck Willingham, a coalition member wearing a “Ban it now!” shirt said the board prioritized some community concerns over others.

“You banned black gang symbols to protect the concerns of white mothers, however you refuse to ban the undisputed white gang symbol,” he said. “Shame on you.”

Public comments limit

Speakers also criticized the board’s plan to limit public comments to 30 minutes once a month, instead of letting all those who sign up speak for three minutes at each board meeting as happens now.

Millicent Rainey, a former board member, said the current board should “enhance the opportunities of public comments.”

Members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition sat in the audience wearing tape over their mouths that said “#HATEFREE” to protest the proposed limit.

The board will meet again to discuss the policy at 9 a.m. Wednesday at C.W. Stanford Middle School, 308 Orange High School Road in Hillsborough.

Strong said she hopes they enact stronger language in the dress code policy and decide not to push forward the policy restricting the public comments.

“Public comments are essential to the school board system,” she siad. “This is a public school board system and people have to be able to go someplace and share their concerns, and as an elected official it’s your responsibility to listen.”

Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553