Orange County Schools’ Confederate flag debate hits home for board member

Matthew Roberts says he’s always found the Confederate flag offensive.

But the Orange County Schools Board of Education member says he’s also always thought people had the right to wear or display the flag as a free-speech issue.

He’s not so sure anymore.

“The students (have) convinced me it is intimidation and bullying,” Roberts said. “I was wrong.”

On Monday, the school board will again meet at 7 p.m. at Stanback Middle School outside Hillsborough. The board has been meeting in the school auditorium to accommodate a group of students, parents and others asking it to ban the Confederate flag — on student clothing, computer screen savers and students’ cars — on school district property.

In the board’s first meeting at the school in February, about 50 people spoke, all but one asking for a ban.

Board Chairman Steve Halkiotis responded by reading a written statement announcing a new equity committee would take up the flag, symbolic speech and other matters.

Many in the crowd got up and left before Halkiotis finished reading the statement.

On the dais, Roberts said he understood their frustration, calling the board’s response, drafted before anyone had even spoken that night, “the biggest insult.”

But Halkiotis, a veteran Orange High School teacher and principal, says he doesn’t think the Hate Free Coalition and its supporters are doing their cause any good by continuing to pressure the board.

“I know they were serious,” he said in an 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.”

Parking lot flag

Latarndra Strong, a leader of the coalition, began asking school leaders to ban the Confederate flag after seeing a truck with a flag on it pull into the student parking lot at Orange High School, her daughter's school, three days in a row.

She says there are about 250 people in the coalition’s Facebook group but that it’s loosely knit and members don’t coordinate what they plan to say at school board meetings. For Monday’s meeting, the group has asked several local religious leaders to speak to the board.

“We continue to ask that they put this on the agenda to at least speak about it,” Strong said.

“I don’t see this as an equity issue,” she continued. “This is a discrimination and protection and safety issue. I don’t see this as a First Amendment issue. I see this as a 14th Amendment issue — kids have to go to school.”

The 14th Amendment guarantees all people equal protection under the law.

For many African-American and other students, the issue is personal. Several testified in February that seeing the Confederate flag at school makes them feel uncomfortable, frightened or “less than” other students.

Strong said her daughter told her, “I don’t know when I see (someone with) the flag if they want to shoot squirrels on the weekend or they want to shoot me.”

‘A snail’s pace’

Roberts thinks the district’s new equity commitee has a broad charge and lot of work to do to make sure the Orange County Schools system is meeting all children’s needs. As of Wednesday, the committee members had not all been chosen and the group had yet to meet.

Because of that, Roberts is not confident the committee will take up the Confederate flag any time soon.

“It’s moving at a snail’s pace,” he said.

Roberts hoped to speed things up at a recent board meeting when he made a motion that members have a discussion on banning the flag — Halkiotis said it was a motion to ban the flag — but the motion died for lack of a second.

Roberts, who is white, says issues surrounding the flag have become personal for him.

The 59-year-old got into parenting late, he said. He has been a foster parent and currently has two older, adopted boys and a third boy who is a foster child.

Last year the family was talking about the Confederate flag when one of his children, then in first grade, said he had been called the N-word on the school bus.

“It wasn’t the Confederate flag,” Roberts said. “But in my opinion that’s what the Confederate flag is saying.”

Roberts says that incident and high school students coming forward at school board meetings to talk about their feelings and experiences have had an impact on him.

“I’m not sure if I was their age I would have the guts to do it,” he said.

School policies

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.

A spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction referred questions about the Confederate flag to the N.C. School Boards Association, which has been working with Orange County Schools to update its policy manual.

In an April 6 memo, Janine Murphy, assistant legal counsel for the association, called the school board “particularly hard working and conscientious” in aligning its manual with the statewide group’s Policies to Lead the Schools, a reference manual used to reflect current educational practices, state and federal laws and case law.

Neither the Orange County Schools’ original nor updated policies mentions the Confederate flag, Murphy wrote in the memo. And neither do most school districts’. Of the 60 school systems’ manuals on the association’s website, only one mentions the flag.

In practice, many school systems turn to a Supreme Court ruling to guide them on political symbols.

In a 2002 School Law Bulletin published by the UNC Institute of Government, law clerk Suzanne Alford wrote that a 1969 case — Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — provides a test that school districts can apply to the Confederate flag.

In that case, the court ruled an Iowa school district violated a student’s constitutional rights when it suspended him for wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

The court said a school may only ban such symbols if they are likely to create “a substantial or material disruption of the school’s work and discipline or infringe upon the rights of other students.”

“The right of individuals to express unpopular ideas is fundamental to the United States, and the decision to prohibit a student from expressing his or her viewpoint through the display of Confederate symbols is necessarily in tension with this fundamental right,” Alford wrote.

“While administrators may rightfully wish to create an inclusive school atmosphere that values diversity, they should give serious consideration to whether prohibiting the display of Confederate symbols is the best way to achieve that goal,” she continued.

That consideration is what Halkiotis says the Orange County Schools is now doing.

School incident

People should not misread the school board’s actions or prejudge the equity committee’s work, he said.

For now Halkiotis said he is confident school principals can handle any situations at their school, like an incident last month at Orange High when a student wore a T-shirt to school with a Confederate flag on the back and the words, “If this flag offends you ... You need a history lesson.”

“The principal spoke with that young person and told him that wasn’t acceptable,” Halkiotis said. “The principal handled that situation.”

But Roberts says the school board must also consider cases — whether it involves a flag or an environment in which the flag is displayed — that don’t reach a principal’s attention.

“To expect a first grader to tell the principal I’ve just been called the N-word isn’t gonna happen in most cases,” he said.

At the very least, Roberts says, the board should have a conversation.

“I need to know why other board members won’t even discuss it ... (if only) so they can say, ‘Mr. Roberts, you’re wrong about this.’”

Schultz: 919-829-8950