Virginia school system denies ban on students’ Confederate imagery

Hannah Natanson

THE WASHINGTON POST – A Virginia school system will continue allowing students to wear clothing bearing Confederate flag images after officials rejected a proposed ban of the gear – angering some black families and plunging the small, majority-white district into a heated national debate.

The Franklin County School Board in January rejected a proposal that sought to bar students from wearing the Confederate flag on school property. Penny Edwards Blue, the Board’s only black member, had suggested amending the school’s dress code to explicitly forbid the flag as a form of “discriminatory, obscene or hate speech imagery.”

“For black people, the flag says you’re not welcome. It means lynching, it means you do not have rights,” Blue said. “It absolutely harms the learning environment and it needs to go.”

At first, Blue’s proposal deadlocked, four-to-four. Later, seven members of the board voted to adopt a broader dress code that did not include a provision banning the Confederate garb. Blue cast the lone dissenting vote.

Blue, 60, said she attempted to prohibit the flag after hearing complaints from black students, parents and educators. They told her white teens show up to school nearly every day – in a district of about 6,800 students that is nearly 80 per cent white – with the flag printed on T-shirts, hats, jackets and belt buckles.

A Confederate flag hangs outside a shop in Boone’s Mill, Virginia. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Superintendent Mark Church, who is white, said the ban is unnecessary because most students do not find the flag upsetting.

In his eight years as superintendent, he said, the school has not witnessed a single fight related to Confederate gear, nor a single formal complaint about Confederate clothing.

“A little rebel flag on a jacket?” Church said. “Our students don’t – they’re not outwardly bothered by it, it’s not a significant issue.”

He added that, in southern Virginia, the flag is part of everyday life, flown prominently on vehicles and raised on poles outside stores. It’s not “a hate thing,” Church said, “For our students, if they’re wearing it, it’s just apparel.”

The debate roiling Franklin County is playing out in school districts across the country, experts said, picking up pace alongside an equally contentious national reckoning over Confederate monuments.

The number of schools forbidding Confederate items in their hallways – and the number of lawsuits challenging those bans – has risen steadily over the past decade or so, said spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York nonprofit organisation, Nora Pelizzari that advocates for free speech. “On both sides of the issue, people are shouting louder than they used to,” Pelizzari said.

“Maybe it’s politics, but I think it’s also social media: You know someone will have your back.”

In the Washington region, some school districts have already opted to bar the gear.

Montgomery County schools in Virginia voted to ban Confederate symbols from student clothing and vehicles in 2015; in Maryland, Carroll County schools adopted a similar policy two years ago.

Proponents of the ban in Franklin County insist that the flag is so offensive it prevents black students from learning.

Still, black teens – conscious that they are in the minority – will often refrain from complaining to white administrators, parents and former students said. Malala Nadean Penn, a 2016 graduate of Franklin County High School who is black, said she felt upset every time she spotted a fellow student wearing the flag in the hallways. That happened at least once a day, said Penn, now 22. But neither she nor any of her black friends ever considered going to the administration.

“I don’t feel that my voice would have been heard,” Penn said.

Opponents of Blue’s proposal maintain that – even if black students take silent offence to Confederate flags – banning the gear would violate the First Amendment.

Donning Confederate clothing is a form of speech, foes of the proposed ban argue, and as such is protected.

Legal experts said both sides may have a point.

The Supreme Court long ago established that students in public schools benefit from robust First Amendment rights, said Catherine Ross, a George Washington University law professor and author of “Lessons in Censorship.”

In a series of decisions, the court set the precedent that it is unconstitutional to forbid any kind of speech in schools, whether a Confederate flag, racist epithets or a swastika, Ross said.

A key ruling, Ross said, came in 1969 with Tinker v Des Moines. In that case – centred on students who donned black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, spurring administrators to suspend the students and prohibit the bands – the court judged that schools cannot forbid speech unless it is likely to generate “significant, immediate disruption,” Ross said.

Historically, the courts have defined “disruption” to include activities such as massive school-wide fistfights or adults showing up to picket outside.

By those criteria, Ross said, Franklin County does not seem legally ripe for a ban on Confederate gear.