A months-long debate on whether to ban the Confederate flag from Franklin County students’ dress code took a turn Monday night when board members voted to remove the flag from the dress code.
In light of recent civil unrest in the county and across the nation, Gills Creek District member John Atchue motioned to revisit the board’s January decision to not to ban the flag.
Member-at-large Penny Blue, the board’s only African American member, proposed the ban in October that ended in a tie vote at the board’s January meeting.
“I think much has happened in our community and in our country since January,” Atchue said. “When we discussed this in January, we didn’t have the protests, we didn’t have the unrest and we didn’t have the dialogue and communication.”
Atchue said he participated in two local protests around Rocky Mount over the past week and he found them uplifting.
“It was a very positive experience for me, and I learned a lot,” he said. “I agree with our First Amendment and believe in our First Amendment rights, but those rights are not absolute.”
Rocky Mount District member Jeff Worley said he noticed that many of the protesters were Franklin County students and former students.
“I feel like they are looking to us for leadership on this,” Worley said. “The state is also moving on this with the Richmond statue being removed. I’d like to see us be ahead of this and not behind it. I was really encouraged about the amount of support the protests had.”
Woreley had previously taken the stance that he “would rather people choose not to do it than be told they cannot” as he stated during a December board meeting.
During the Nov. 11 school board meeting, K-12 Director of Curriculum Brenda Muse, also African American, said that black middle school students had told her they were uncomfortable reporting their concerns about the flag to teachers even though they found it upsetting. Over the course of several months, board members remained split over the topic.
Boone District member Donna Cosmato expressed concerns that banning the flag would infringe on the rights of students’ free speech and did not want to place the school district in a position to be sued.
In November, Cosmato said, “We do not yet meet the standard of test for disruption in the classroom, so I can’t support a ban on the flag because it restricts free speech, and we have already been warned by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) not to restrict the free speech of students.”
In earlier meetings, Blue said that previous legal advice from school district attorney Steve Maddy was based on the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District and outdated. She cited a ruling from the 2013 Hardwick v. Heyward case, heard in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court that concluded a South Carolina school district did not violate the free speech rights of Candice Hardwick when it prohibited her from wearing a number of shirts that depicted the Confederate flag over a period of three school years.
Maddy said the Tinker ruling was from a higher court and as a Supreme Court ruling, it would take precedence despite the more recent ruling.
During Monday night’s meeting, Maddy said that the recent protests and backlash against racism would place the school system on good footing should it decide to ban the flag.
“You have to have documented incidents within the community and, certainly, today’s climate is a result of that,” Maddy said.
“One of the reasons the board chose not to ban the flag was the First Amendment, and the fact that we had not had any substantial cases to come forward,” said Superintendent Mark Church. “In light of the issues, what our country is going through right now and some of the concerns that people have, I feel like at this point, it would be appropriate to ban the flag.”
The board saw six votes to ban the flag with Cosmato and Union Hall District member P.D. Hambrick abstaining.
“I’m sorry this country has come to what it is right now,” Hambrick said. “But, I’m not into making lists because it never ends. If Native Americans come before the board wanting to abolish the American flag, what would we say? They were here longer than anyone else and right now they’re still second- and third-class citizens. When you start making lists, where do you stop? This is a sad time in America, and I feel for everyone, but I’m not into having knee-jerk reactions to things that are going on for a month or two or even a year or two.”
Blue responded that she knew of no Native Americans that have come forward to say that the American flag was offensive to them.
Atchue said he considered the Confederate flag to be a symbol of hate and disruption to the learning environment.
“It’s threatening. It can be intimidating. And it can make members of our community and students fearful and afraid,” he said. “I think if you’re fearful and afraid, it’s quite a disruption to an educational process. As educators and board members, our primary responsibility to our students is to provide a safe learning environment for our students to thrive. If the flag is viewed as threatening or intimidating to any members of our community, we are not fulfilling our obligation to providing that safe learning environment, and I think we’re failing our mission there.”
Blackwater District member Arlet Greer said that regardless of the board’s decision, the school system should continue having positive conversations with students regarding freedom of speech and how not to misuse it.
Snow Creek District member G.B. Washburn agreed.
“There’s got to be continued education to help all races of people not to offend other races,” Washburn said. “The action of banning the flag will have to be just the beginning.”