Superintendent says Confederate imagery disrupts learning, but board chair postpones vote

The February 14 Albemarle County School Board meeting got heated after Chair Jonno Alcaro tabled a resolution that would restrict Confederate imagery on clothing in schools until the next meeting. Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County provided refreshments. Photo by Eze Amos The February 14 Albemarle County School Board meeting got heated after Chair Jonno Alcaro tabled a resolution that would restrict Confederate imagery on clothing in schools until the next meeting. Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County provided refreshments. Photo by Eze Amos

resolution to ban Confederate imagery on clothing in Albemarle schools was back on the agenda at the February 14 Albemarle County School Board meeting. The last time the issue came up, in August, six people were arrested.

School board members were split on the issue, and again postponed a decision, to the dismay of both attendees and Superintendent Matt Haas, who said he was ready to ban the imagery because it created a disruption to learning.

Haas says that rationale, supported by a recent report from the School Health Advisory Board that concluded Confederate imagery might be harmful to students, could protect the board should a lawsuit ensue. But several school board members, citing a 2003 First Amendment lawsuit from a Jack Jouett sixth grader not allowed to wear his NRA T-shirt, expressed concerns about infringing on students’ rights.

At first, the meeting was business as usual. After commending eight Albemarle students on qualifying for the Daily Progress Regional Spelling Bee, board members listened to local middle schoolers attest to the importance of extracurricular civics programs.

Then came public comment. Most speakers, many with Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, pressed the board to pass the resolution banning Confederate imagery. They delivered impassioned pleas stressing that minority children cannot feel safe around classmates wearing Confederate imagery, as audience members stood up in solidarity.

“To allow children to wear [Confederate imagery], carry it into a school, is no different from having them bring in swastikas,” said Matthew Christensen, a social worker. “I have seen the violence. I have seen the hatred. It has such an impact on our kids and it’s going to stay with them; it’s not going to go away when the image disappears.”

Star Peterson, one of the victims injured in the August 12 vehicular assault, spoke about the use of Confederate imagery during local hate rallies in 2017. “During the summer of hate…Richard Spencer and his people marched by a family festival with Confederate flags,” she said. “I can tell you I saw Confederate flags at a KKK rally. I can tell you I saw Confederate flags with my own eyes at the Unite the Right rally. There is no question of their significance.”

Before proceeding to debate, the board reviewed new items added to the Albemarle County schools budget, such as $30,000 earmarked for panic buttons. Then, it took a 30-minute break.

When the meeting reconvened, Assistant Superintendent Bernard Hairston submitted the resolution.

Board members Steve Koleszar, Kate Acuff, and Jason Buyaki, who wore a Confederate tie at one of the board’s previous discussions of the topic, said they felt the ban violated the First Amendment and failed to solve the underlying problem of racism.

Chair Jonno Alcaro implied he was reluctant to pass it for similar reasons, and decided to table the resolution until the next meeting, on February 28, to hear public concerns and allow the board more time to review the language.

Many in the audience were stewing. Amidst shouts of “coward” and “you’re supporting fascism,” Lara Harrison stood in front of the dais and flipped board members off with both hands.

After a minute of murmurs and muffled laughter, Alcaro noticed and asked her to sit down. “I’m not disrupting the meeting,” she replied, sitting on the steps. “I thought you were in favor of free speech.”

She returned to her seat after Alcaro threatened to have her removed.

Harrison had been arrested for trespassing during the special August 30 school board meeting concerning the same policy, though the charges were later dropped.

Audience interruptions continued throughout the meeting, but those heckling the board either stopped after being threatened with removal or stormed out of the auditorium.

Board member David Oberg supported the resolution, as did Graham Paige, who said he had evolved on the issue. Citing the School Health Advisory Board report, Katrina Callsen also supported the resolution.

“I think Confederate imagery should be banned from schools,” she said, comparing it to gang imagery. “Our city was the site of one of the largest hate rallies in recent history and the Confederate flag was a hate symbol.”

All board members in favor said they were willing to face a lawsuit but didn’t think it would happen because of the violent history of the flag in Charlottesville.

In response, Koleszar alluded to MLK. “You know, Martin Luther King warned about how the Northern liberal was more dangerous than the white racist,” he said.

“I am not a Northern liberal,” Paige retorted. The room erupted in laughter.

Haas said he would use his authority to prevent students from wearing Confederate imagery in the meantime. “I want a green light to work with the administrative team to have a plan to proactively tell families that the school board supports our current dress code,” he said. “I am now saying that you cannot wear these outfits to school.”

Nobody objected.

Before adjourning, Alcaro suggested the meeting prompted a change of heart. “I look forward to approving the anti-racism consent resolution in the next meeting,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot that I really need to think through.”

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