Public meetings held by elected officials in Charlottesville no longer go uninterrupted. But last night’s Albemarle County School Board meeting in which six people were arrested and one was hospitalized was a meeting of a different breed.
For about a year, the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County has pressured the school board to reexamine its dress code policy, and ban all Confederate imagery in an effort to dismantle systemic racism.
When the school board shut down its August 23 meeting after half an hour because of alleged disruption from the anti-racist activists, it planned a special August 30 meeting to resume its business, but with no public comment session.
It was at that meeting that some members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition and other community activists held their own open forum outside the doors of Lane Auditorium, where the school board was holding its public session in the Albemarle County Office Building.
Cheers and chants from the group could be heard inside the auditorium, and things got ugly after county officials asked coalition members to quiet down.
“We aren’t going anywhere, and the more they try to silence us, the louder we will be,” said organizer Lara Harrison to about 50 people who were seated in folding chairs.
She called for the resignation of board member Jason Buyaki, who wore a necktie featuring versions of historic Confederate flags to the previous meeting.
“Racists must resign,” the group started chanting loudly as County Executive Jeff Richardson approached and said they’d have to lower their volume or leave. It wasn’t long before police cuffed Hate-Free Schools Coalition organizer Amanda Moxham, who was leading the group chant, and their chorus changed to sounds of screaming, and people falling over chairs made of plastic and metal.
Some community members demanded to see officers’ badge numbers as the police arrested four people outside the auditorium.
Michael Reid was knocked to the ground by officer Greg Jenkins, who claimed Reid assaulted him. The plainclothes cop straddled Reid and scolded him while aggressively gesturing at him with his right pointer finger.
Reid lay motionless on the ground for several seconds. Onlookers noticed his face beginning to turn purple, and continually called for him to receive medical attention.
Three uniformed officers, all larger than Reid, surrounded him and cuffed him tightly. Opening his eyes, Reid yelled that they were hurting him, and agreed to stand once they loosened his cuffs. Reid was escorted out on his feet, and police said an ambulance had been called for him. He was discharged from the emergency room with a summons that night.
Approximately two dozen police officers were on the scene.
Inside the meeting, a small group of anti-racist activists were peacefully protesting. Most had tape across their mouths that said “ban it,” and some held a massive sign that read, “racists don’t get re-elected.”
Three of those protesters “became disorderly,” according to a press release from the Albemarle County Police Department, and School Board Chair Kate Acuff asked them to leave. Two of them were also arrested.
Moxham was not charged. Reid was charged with trespassing, along with Andrea Lynn Massey, Sabr Lyon, Lara Lynn Harrison, Samantha Wren Cadwalder Peacoe, and Francis Xavier Richards. The latter two were also charged with obstruction of justice, and all arrestees were processed at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, except for Reid, because he was hospitalized.
“The School Board as a group was committed to getting through the business it was elected to do,” Acuff said in the release. “Fortunately, with the help from the county attorney and county police, we were able to do that. We strive to hold meetings in a civilized manner.”
Superintendent Matt Haas said in the same release, “We are grateful to the Albemarle County Police Department and county staff for protecting our board, staff, parents, students, and community members. Overall, we were able to have a peaceful and productive meeting thanks to their efforts.”
Said Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, who was also on the scene, “The right of free expression provides no right to engage in criminal misconduct.”
Protesters who left the building were not allowed to re-enter the public meeting, and press was only allowed to go back inside after showing credentials.
But inside Lane Auditorium, school board members did not appear to be concerned about what had just happened right outside of their doorway. They continued with their scheduled agenda, which included an update on the school division’s new anti-racism policy.
A panel of nine volunteer students has been tasked with writing the policy that will be implemented at all county schools, says school spokesperson Phil Giaramita.
“Truly, [racism] has become part of the daily life we go through every day,” said Western Albemarle High School senior and policy writer Cyrus Rody-Ramazani. “It breeds, or it almost makes people feel comfortable.”
So far, the students have suggested an anonymous reporting system for racism. This fall, they will officially present the policy they’ve drafted, and Giaramita says the division is waiting to hear their recommendations before addressing the dress code.
County schools are also considering the “constitutional issues” of a dress code that bans specific imagery, rather than the code’s current language that prohibits students from wearing anything violent or vulgar.
In fact, they’ve been burned for that before.
In April 2002, Alan Newsom, a Jack Jouett Middle School sixth-grader, wore a purple T-shirt advertising the NRA Shooting Sports Camp he had attended the previous weekend to learn about rifle target shooting and gun safety.
Newsom was asked to remove the shirt with three firearms on it, which led to a $150,000 First Amendment lawsuit against the school board, the superintendent, and Jack Jouett principals.
After two years of litigation, the suit was settled and a judge allowed Newsom to wear his purple NRA camp shirt to school.
The new dress code policy proposed by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition is grounded on the premise that: “All children deserve to feel safe in school.”
Lyon, who was arrested at the August 30 school board meeting, held a sign with those words painted on it at the meeting the previous week.
“The bottom line is we’re trying to protect our kids,” says Moxham, a mother of three.
Immediately following the election in 2016, she says a group of students wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school. “And in response to that, a number of students coordinated to wear Confederate imagery to school in order to intimidate…It got so bad that the police were actually called.”
Moxham says this instance has been corroborated by eye-witnesses including students, but school officials deny it ever happened.
“I do know of one incident that resembles this story because a member of the coalition brought it up some time ago, and I was able to track down the facts by speaking with the assistant principal who was personally involved,” says Giaramita.
The school spokesperson says last year at Monticello High School, a student was distributing Black Lives Matter shirts before class in the cafeteria. A few students said they were offended, and would wear confederacy-related shirts, which they did the next day.
“The assistant principal talked with all students involved and according to him, the student who was distributing the Black Lives Matter shirt willingly agreed to no longer do so and the students wearing the Confederate shirts agreed to no longer do so.”
This approach of education and counseling over discipline is what’s now being considered in the revised dress code, “ironically enough,” says Giaramita.
In his version of the story, police were not present. County police were not immediately able to corroborate either record.
Coalition members plan to continue fighting to end racism in schools.
“Confederate imagery and Confederate history certainly needs to be remembered, but it doesn’t need to be revered,” says Moxham. “By not explicitly banning the Confederate flag and white nationalist imagery, they are allowing for, enabling, and not making a strong statement that this is a school that supports non-discrimination and anti-racism.”
Coalition members declined to comment on the arrests made August 30, but posted a statement to their Facebook page, which said small children who witnessed the “police brutality” were sobbing outside of the county office building and have been “traumatized.”
“Six parents and community members arrested because we want ACPS to protect our kids,” it said. “You’re either racist or anti-racist.”