“You can jail revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution,” were the words scrawled on a giant white sign held by a man in sunglasses.
It was the first meeting of the Albemarle County School Board since the August 30 one where six anti-racist activists were arrested and hauled off in handcuffs for allegedly being disruptive, and where one was sent to the hospital after a police officer knocked him to the ground.
This time, things were more peaceful—board chair Kate Acuff only threatened to have one community member removed for clapping.
Activists with groups such as Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County have put intense pressure on the board for over a year to make county schools more inclusive and safe for all students—by, among other things, banning Confederate imagery currently permitted in the school division’s dress code. In response, a panel of nine volunteer students has been tasked with writing an anti-racism policy that will be implemented at all county schools, says school spokesperson Phil Giaramita, and a re-examination of the dress-code policy could happen subsequently.
That response has not satisfied activists, who want Confederate imagery banned now, and who have been outraged at the school board’s aggressive attempts to limit dissent.
Tension was high at the September 18 meeting, and Superintendent Matthew Haas, perhaps hoping to set a new tone, began with a statement declaring that county and city schools will join together to end racism and discrimination in their hallways, and close opportunity gaps.
“Discrimination against diverse people of color is still deeply ingrained in American culture,” he said. “Whether we call it racism or systemic bias, it results in inequitable opportunities for African American and Latino students.”
But the nearly 20 community members who had signed up for public comment wanted to talk specifics.
After a warning that any sounds of support or non-support could result in ejection from the meeting, a retired Henley Middle School teacher of 25 years stood up to speak.
Margie Shepherd said she had successfully argued before the board a decade ago that students using hate speech should be disciplined, and now the same conversation has resurfaced.
Because those who agreed with her weren’t allowed to cheer, or even snap, they silently waved their hands in support as Shepherd said Confederate symbols “make schools less welcome and less safe for our students of color.”
Matthew Christensen spoke next, and criticized the board for not being open to two-way communication, which it promises in its code of conduct.
“Each and every one of you needs to think very long and very hard about who you are and what you want to represent to this community,” Christensen said.
School board members are aware of the danger they’re putting students in by allowing such “traumatizing imagery” in schools, he claimed.
“And yet you do nothing,” he said. “You pretend to care about our children. You pretend to care about our community, and yet, you have shown over and over again that you don’t.”
Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor at UVA, called the board hostile, and said its decision to have activists arrested was a “fetishization of order over justice,” a “complete embarrassment, and a moral failure.”
While the board made no apologies for the previous meeting’s arrests, school board member Graham Paige, a retired teacher of 30 years, stayed back to talk with some of the remaining activists. “A dress code and anti-racism policy that benefits all of our students is really the mutual goal of Hate-Free Schools and the board,” he said.
The board will next meet September 27. And the activists have promised they’ll be there, too.