Board will not ban Confederate flag, will form equity committee

The Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting on Monday, Feb. 27 concluded with a statement from chairman of the board Dr. Stephen H. Halkiotis that the Confederate flag would not be banned on school grounds. Instead, Halkiotis submitted, an equity committee would be established.

The action came after a public comment session during which all but one of the over 50 speakers advocated a proposed ban of the flag on Orange County School properties.

Of the 50 people signed up to speak, most were associated with the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, begun earlier this year by Latarndra Strong, a mother of three children in Orange County Schools.

Speakers of all ages, background, race, and religion spoke, generally introducing themselves with their affiliation to the problem – and many by stating their connection with the south and how they do not see the flag as a symbol of “Southern Pride” but rather of White Supremacy, as they associate it with the KKK, the Dylann Roof tragedy, and more.

The Board’s stance has remained steady – they do not see the flag as an issue, and have no reason to think it will become one. Additionally, they have voiced concern with infringing upon students’ first amendment rights.

That said, the Board also added that they will take quite seriously any evidence that the flag is instigating unrest.

“To be clear, the Board of Education respects free speech, but will not tolerate threatening or disruptive or hate speech,” Halkiotis said. “We do not, I repeat, tolerate threatening, disruptive or hate speech in our school system.”

Those who spoke in support of the ban were teachers, students, lawyers, and parents who disagree with previous statements from the Board, and how this issue has been handled over the last few weeks, continually stating there are incidents that go unreported out of fear, the flag is a continued distraction, and would technically fit into the dress code under “disruptive or inflammatory” clothing or speech.

Students from Cedar Ridge and Orange spoke as well,  many times from a place of isolation and fear associated with seeing the flag on school grounds, be it on clothing, cars, or keychains.

One student cited Roy Cooper’s desire that, “Together, we can make North Carolina the shining beacon in the south by investing in our schools,” saying that in order to do so, the effect of the flag on students needed to be addressed in the official agenda, and therefore banned in schools.

One speaker pointed out the potential unreported harassment and discriminatory acts that occur under the radar, as with fear of speaking out and institutionalized racism and oppression.

“I love all the support from the adults, but I feel like [the Board] really needs to hear us, [the students], out,” Orange High School junior Marilyn Allen said. “There are a lot of things, racist things, that happen at Orange High School but honestly students feel like no one is going to do anything about it, and a lot of teachers don’t want to say anything either, because they feel like they will lose their job.

“I’ve had conversations with teachers about this whole thing, I’ve asked them if they would mind speaking up about it, and they’ve said, ‘I would but I can’t lose my job,’” she continued. “I think that it’s crazy that teachers can teach us about it but they can’t say how they feel.

“I asked a teacher how she felt about how they can’t talk about controversial things in classes, and she told me that during a teacher meeting with the principal, they told the teachers just not to talk about it. Those were her direct words: ‘Just don’t talk about it.’”

At the end of the public comment session, Board Chair Dr. Stephen H. Halkiotis spoke.

“I want you to understand that we do listen, we do care – we’re not a group of uncaring, unsympathetic people. We act, as most elected boards do, in a very deliberate manner. Yes, it may seem slow, it may seem glacial like ... but believe me, it is done with respect to both policy, state law, and federal law. It’s done with the guidance of our attorney. Our actions are deliberate, careful, and well thought-out. This board has heard your concerns.”

Halkiotis then read what appeared to be a prepared statement.

“Over the last several months we have heard from parents and other members of the community requesting a system-wide ban of the Confederate flag. The Board of Education has listened intently and instructed our staff to carefully view the claims that have been made.

“As the Board, we listen carefully to feedback from our community and we know that communication from our stakeholders is critical to the success of Orange County Schools. The Board of Education and staff are committed to a school environment free from discrimination, bullying and harassment, and the Board has adopted clear policies addressing these subjects.

"The Board and administration believe the best way to affect positive change in the behavior of students is through the programmatic steps that is taken and not by banning a particular symbol.”

As the last statement was read, many sighed and then as one rose to leave, most people in support of the ban followed suit, and were preparing to go when Dr. Halkiotis raised his voice and urged the group to stay and listen.

“The most important paragraphs have yet to be read,” he said. “If the Board listened to you respectively, I would expect the same respect in return, that’s a small item to ask for,” as the group stopped, turned around, and listened as he continued.

“This approach is consistent with the guidance of our experienced school board attorney. The Board has the utmost faith in our superintendent to work with principals to address any specific concerns that might arise. Our superintendent cares deeply about our students and our community, he has demonstrated his commitment to establishing a safe school environment in which our students excel.”

Dr. Halkiotis announced that he has directed superintendent Dr. Wirt to establish the equity committee in which he will collaborate members and “take a holistic look at [the] current climate, including symbolic speech issues [and] achievement data,” and “how [they] are supporting families that are maybe feeling the effects of recent changes in direction in the law.”

The response from many in support of the ban afterwards was of defeat, but as most said in their comments, they plan to return to the next and continued future public comment sections at board meetings.

“I was frustrated that [Dr. Halkiotis] said that he had, that they had listened to us, and we're taking our comments into consideration, but he read a statement that had clearly been written before he heard our comments,” Emily Elstad, a member of Hate-Free Schools Coalition and the first speaker of the evening said. “So they had already decided what they were going to do before they heard our comments.”