Orange is the new Black History Month flashpoint following a March 12 high school program titled “Black Lives Matter.” An anonymous deputy called the event “anti-police” and “political” in a Facebook message that went viral, and by Monday, March 16, parents were keeping their children home because of alleged threats of violence.
Students at Orange County High School designed the program, which featured musical, dramatic and dance performances that highlighted inventors, civil rights leaders—and current events involving the deaths of black men, according to a release from the Orange County School Board.
The issue exploded when someone describing himself as a “deputy in Virginia” sent a message about the event to two pro-police Facebook groups, Stop the Cop Haters and Police Officers, which then stripped the account of identifying information and posted it to the groups’ pages.
The deputy said his wife became concerned when she saw students wearing T-shirts that said “I can’t breathe” and “#blacklivesmatter.” In a portion of the program called “Last Words,” the students started reciting lines evoking black men killed by police, which the deputy transcribed in his message:
“I’m from Ferguson Missouri…I was told to put my hands up. I did, and I was shot seven times. My name is Michael Brown.”
“I was sitting on the couch and the police came in my house and shot me in the head. I was seven years old.”
“I was falsely harassed for selling cigarettes and I was put into a choke hold that eventually lead to my death. I can’t breathe. My name is Eric Garner.”
The deputy wrote that his wife grabbed their 8-year-old daughter after she took part in a Motown Medley and left.
His Facebook message included the names and numbers of Orange County school administrators, and after it was posted publicly, a national audience started chiming in.
Orange County Sheriff Mark Amos said he’s aware of the identity of the deputy, but refused to name the person. Amos said the individual lives in Orange but does not work in law enforcement in that county.
While things were calm the day after the show, over the weekend, parents started calling the sheriff’s office, concerned about potential violence at the school. Amos said there was talk of protests, riots and weapons, but no direct threats, and the buzz seemed to stem from social media.
“We attempted to determine the origin of these references but our efforts always ended in ‘I heard it or saw it somewhere,’” said Amos in a press release. ”We were never able to determine a specific threat or who it was made by.”
Nonetheless, that didn’t keep parents from keeping students out of school on Monday, March 16. Sheriff Amos said there were 10 or so officers at the high school, extra officers at two elementary schools and others on alert around town.
Orange County resident Kimberley Barley sent two of her children to school wearing blue shirts that said, “police lives matter.” She didn’t attend the black history program, but said, “I wouldn’t have stayed if I had gone.”
Barley, who has worked in law enforcement for 15 years—she wouldn’t say where —is angry that “teachers and administrators allowed a protest at school.” She said she is not a racist, and the program was “flat-out racism,” and that there were so many ways black history could have been positively portrayed. “It’s supposed to be black history, not black current events,” she said.
Ebony Nixon, a 2005 Orange County High grad, didn’t go to the program, either, but she had a different perspective. “I commend those students for speaking out on that topic,” she said. “It’s still part of our history, part of our present history.”
Chrystie Beasley was there to see her niece and nephew perform. “I don’t know how it got turned into a police hate thing,” she said. “That’s not true.”
The deputy said he expected the program would focus on the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Beasley called that condescending. “There’s more to black history than Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” she said. “History is happening every day. It’s important to educate children about what’s going on in the world today.”
Beasley also wonders why the person who sent the message didn’t go through the school system to express his concerns. “They did the opposite,” she said. “They posted something for the world to see.”
Orange County Schools Superintendent Brenda Tanner, whose contact information was posted online, said she couldn’t guess the number of calls she got about the program. “There were a lot of pink [message] slips,” she said. A notable exception: the still-anonymous deputy.
When asked if she received threats, she took a long pause. “We’ve got a lot of people expressing their opinion—and their support,” she said.
Tanner said three schools—Orange County High, Lightfoot Elementary and Unionville Elementary—had lower than normal attendance March 16, but she cautioned, “We don’t want to infer it was from a particular incident.”
In the flood of messages, the Orange schools administration tried to focus on Orange community members and parents, said Tanner.
“Any time we put on a production, we are responsible for reflection,” she said. “I think we’ll examine the process. There have been questions raised. My job is to listen.”
So was the program anti-cop? “Absolutely not,” said Tanner. And although it was perceived as a political protest by some, she described it as students dealing with controversial current-day events through poetry and song. “It was clear there was no aggression, no defiance, which are some of the things I would associate with a protest,” said Tanner. “This was a performance.”
Barley, the mom who works in law enforcement, wants the school administration to publicly apologize for program. “They need to be held accountable,” she said.
The closest to that might be the release from the Orange County School Board: “We as members of the School Board regret that the nature of the program was offensive to some, but truly believe that there was no intent to offend or disparage anyone.“
The board notes its appreciation of law enforcement, and its support of Tanner. “The School Board takes responsibility for the Black History Program,” said the release.