On Monday, Feb. 13, at the Orange County Schools Board of Education monthly meeting, the majority of the public comment session was filled with pleas to ban the Confederate flag within the school system.
Nine people – parents of students alongside community advocates – including members of the Northern Orange NAACP, spoke regarding the effort to ban the flag.
During the meeting, the Board offered no verbal response, and moved on in the agenda after public comment ended, despite the fact that some members of the board were visibly moved. Since, there has been community backlash against suggestion that the flag should be banned.
Those who appreciate the status quo say the flag represents history and is not a “hate symbol.”
The NC Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wrote a press release in response to the public comment on Monday.
“In a not-so-shocking revival of their campaign of willful ignorance and race baiting, the North Carolina NAACP, in the form of their Northern Orange County Chapter, has again called for the banning of the Confederate flag in Orange County Schools. The North Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans obviously condemns the suggested band and the actions of the NAACP.
“Incredibly, in calling for the ban, the Chapter President cited the Orange County Schools’ strategic plan to promote ‘learning from our history and each other.’ How can students learn from history if it is partially taught? Further, how did the NAACP become the arbiter of curriculum and free speech in the state’s public schools?”
Latarndra Strong – parent of three OCS students, and someone who spoke at the public comment session at the BOE meeting – offered a response to the backlash against her push to get the flag banned.
“I don’t hold the belief that everyone that has a Confederate flag is an extremist or a racist – I don’t hold that belief,” Strong said. “But we do know that some people who are flag raisers are, and since that flag is commonly used as a symbol of hate, what happens to kids when they come to school is that it’s constantly triggering them – is this a person that is a southern pride flag waiver? Or is this a person that would prefer to have harm done to me, or is this a person that believes that their race is more superior than mine?
“These are the thoughts that go through kids’ minds when they are at school,” she continued. “Kids shouldn’t have to be at school wondering if there are people there that would prefer for them not to be there.”
The effort to remove the Confederate flags from schools is not a new movement, as UNC–Chapel Hill renamed “Saunders Hall” to “Carolina Hall” when William Saunders’ role in the KKK was discovered, the effort to remove the Silent Sam statue at UNC–Chapel Hill, and in Hillsborough when the Orange County Historical Museum removed the words “Confederate Memorial” from its building.
In Orange County Schools, the issue primarily dates back to an incident in 2015, in which a student drove on school property flying the Confederate flag from his car.
According to Board of Education Chair Dr. Stephen H. Halkiotis, the incident was handled calmly and appropriately by the principal at the time – the student was asked to remove the flag from his car, and the student obliged.
Regarding the 2015 incident, Halkiotis said, “It was an isolated incident a year and a half ago, and it has now assumed almost a stature of urban legend – some people think we have the Confederate flag flying inside of our buildings, that we’ve got the Confederate flag flying on flagpoles in front of our school and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Halkiotis added that the Board is “extremely sensitive to the needs of all children… it is up to the school administrators, they are empowered by state public school law to be the watchdogs to ensure the safety and the well-being of all students.”
The Board’s current stance is that there has been no misconduct or extreme behavior regarding the flag, while parents involved in the public comment argue that it is distracting in the learning environment and that it does fall under the “inflammatory or derogatory clothing” section in the student dress code.
“We don’t ban flags and we don’t ban symbols outright unless there is a significant disruption inside of a school that is deemed a disruption to the educational process by the principal, in consultation with the superintendent,” Halkiotis said. “That’s a decision made by school administrators, not by people outside the school system.”
In 2016 – over a year after the incident during which a student was asked to remove a flag from their truck – a parent once again saw a Confederate flag on campus and became bothered by it, parents wrote letters to the principal, as administrators are responsible to deal with on-campus issues, rather than the Board regulating specific incidents.
Dr. Wirt wrote a letter of response, citing the student dress code policy, and stating that it is within the code that students wear the Confederate flag.
Upon receiving this letter, parents and community supporters formed a group and went to the Board, the first time at the beginning of December 2016.
The chair of board suggested they ask for a meeting with Superintendent Todd Wirt, and they met, with the culmination that no ban would be issued.
In the meeting with Wirt, it was stated that he said he was “numb to public comment,” as most of the people who spoke at the previous meeting were not parents of students, and he had not received any influx of incidents reported, and according to Strong, he considered the problem “political postering.”
The group of parents and community members came to the next Board meeting on Monday, responding to that comment by wearing posters that asked, “Are you numb to” with a fill in the blank section where many wrote “public comment,” “racism,” “justice,” “equality,” and more.
“At this point, that is the only place, the only option we have, to share how we feel about this situation,” Strong said.
Wirt responded to the quote of him being numb to public comment, saying he is not numb to the concerns of the community, and his efforts are for students to achieve goals and succeed.
Wirt said he is not dismissive to stories shared and to people’s feelings, and is willing to speak about these concerns, but in order for situations to be handled, administrators need proper detail on the incident or problem, such as date and people involved, in order to take any type of action to solve the problems at hand.
“I don’t have any evidence of [these problems], and I can’t speak to information that is not shared with me,” he said.
Teachers and students have been encouraged to share problems with the administrators, but there haven’t been many reports, Halkiotis said. (Though the public commentary offered at the meeting may have suggested otherwise).
In response to a notion of prevention for potential future incidents, Halkiotis said, “That’s not the way the law works,” as this effort to ban the flag deals directly with first amendment rights and the freedom of speech.
“You have to listen to your school board attorney and keep yourself from getting sued, keep yourself from spending a whole lot of money defending yourself in lawsuits when you just precipitously decide to ban something,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for people who are out to protect our rights, but when you start talking about an infringement on first amendment rights and freedom of speech, you need to be very careful what you’re doing.
“You think about what is going on, you investigate what is going on, you lean on and listen to your legal counsel. We [as schools] are getting caught in the middle on a lot of this stuff, and you know, we’re just trying to do the right thing by following the law, that is what we’re trying to do.”