Orange County

Why Orange County’s student dress code may not satisfy Confederate flag critics

Brenda Stephens accused her fellow school board members Wednesday of “pushing aside brown and black people” as the board continue to debate banning the Confederate flag.

After seven months of discussion, the Orange County Schools’ equity committee recommended approval of a revised student dress code banning items that are “reasonably expected to intimidate other students.”

The proposal expands a draft revision by including intimidation on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or religious orientation. The draft revision only banned racially intimidating items.

Stephens said the expansion takes the focus off race.

“I felt as, as a black person, you were telling me, ‘get to the back of the line,’” Stephens said. “And I’ve been told that so much.”

Stephens is one of two African-Americans on the seven-member Board of Education.

“Pardon me if I come off as somewhat sensitive or whatever,” she said. “I just feel like today’s meeting is a study of pushing back, pushing aside brown and black people, loading up the policy with nebulous terms and phrases to placate the need, to take the eye off the race.”

She said she was concerned the add-ons were a delay tactic, and that the board could have addressed racial concerns months ago and come back later to expand the policy if needed.

Still, Stephens joined board Chairman Steve Halkiotis and board member Michael Hood – the three voting board members on the equity committee – in voting to recommend approval of the new policy. It will now go to the full board for final approval on August 14.

Board member Donna Coffey, who sought the broader language, presented her draft at the meeting at C.W. Stanford Middle School. The board’s attorney Jonathan Blumberg explained the legal language.

Symbolic speech

The new policy makes clear that symbolic speech can be prohibited, Blumberg said.

“A flag is a form of symbolic speech, where you’re not actually saying something but a symbol is making a message,” he explained. “The symbolic speech is covered by the policy, and if it’s intimidating, racially intimidating or otherwise intimidating, then it is prohibited.”

Blumberg also ensured the board understood the policy broadens the meaning of disruptive items to include intimidating items.

“Intimidate is different from ‘I disagree with, that bothers me, that might even offend me,’” he said. “Those things are still protected speech. When we get to intimidating speech, it includes to frighten, to make timid; it is essentially a threatening symbol or sign. So my thing on this – and how I see this as being legal – is that if the board is in agreement in your assessment that if a sign is intimidating, that you’re all viewing it as disruptive.”

Blumberg said the new policy will involve training for principals and Superintendent Todd Wirt to make sure everyone knows how to apply it. Halkiotis said the Wake County Public School System had two days of training for principals to understand racial issues in school, and Orange County should go through similar training.

“Times have changed,” he said. “And if you don’t do the right training, all of this is for nothing.”

Latarndra Strong, founder of Hate-Free Schools Coalition, said she is hopeful but concerned the policy’s language does not ban the flag outright.

"I wrote a letter in 2016, raising the concern of the Confederate flag at our schools,” Strong said. “So if I were to write this letter now in 2017, it would, with this policy, result in the same outcome. The response was that it was within the policy to bring the Confederate flag to school."

“I’m concerned about what’s going to happen on day one when school starts,” she said.

But Halkiotis expects the board to pass the policy at its next meeting.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “And I would argue this case before any jury or anybody else that we’re moving forward with a good-faith effort to provide as much security as possible to prevent intimidation and fear of symbolism against someone."

He said he looked beyond the criticism he got at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting and focused on what people were saying when deciding on the new policy.

“It’s kind of sad when people want to hold up signs that have some disparaging remarks,” he said. “I don’t need a lecture about my morality – I know my morality. I know my commitment to make life on this planet better for all people, and people can refer to me as a bully if they want.”

Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553