BEDFORD — Saying the issue “struck a nerve with people,” Bedford County Superintendent Doug Schuch said Thursday the school division will look again at division policies regarding disruptive behavior following an incident shared on social media earlier this month showing Jefferson Forest High School students displaying Confederate flags on campus.
“We want to use this as an opportunity to examine some of our policies to make sure that something like this does not happen again,” Schuch said Thursday evening during a Bedford County School Board meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Nine people addressed board members during the public comment portion of the meeting, their remarks often drawing cheers and applause from the dozens of people in the audience. Most urged board members and administrators to consider revising the school division’s dress and conduct code to include a ban on racially offensive images like the Confederate flag.
“The students in the photographs didn’t break any rules and that’s the problem,” Spence White, a theater teacher at Jefferson Forest, said during the meeting. “I’m appealing to you to change this.”
White said the same dress code that prohibits students from wearing revealing clothing should apply to clothing or items other students may find offensive.
“Our dress code says a girl wearing a tank top may be too much of a distraction to other students,” White said. “How much more distracting is it to sit beside a Confederate flag for a black student?”
Leslie Loucks, a parent of a Jefferson Forest student, agreed.
“We know that certain symbols have different meanings to different people,” Loucks said. “And we are not violating a student’s First Amendment rights to prohibit wearing symbols that may be offensive to other students.”
The incident portrayed on social media occurred on Feb. 4 during the first day of Jefferson Forest’s Spirit Week, which was “Country vs. Country Club” day at the school and students were allowed to dress accordingly.
During a class change, several students photographed themselves displaying Confederate battle flags in different areas across campus. One photo shows a student draped in the flag, captioned with a defense of the banner as a symbol of “history and heritage.”
The photographs were initially shared on Snapchat before being uploaded to Facebook on Feb. 5. The images were shared on Facebook by Roanoke resident Lyman Connor, a parent of a Jefferson Forest student. By Feb. 6, Connor’s post had been shared more than 1,500 times on Facebook.
“It’s very infuriating to have a child come home and say she was a victim of derogatory comments or behavior,” Connor said to the school board during Thursday’s meeting. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred to the black community, to the Hispanic community and to the Jewish community and that can’t be changed. But you now have the opportunity to shine by doing the right thing.”
In recent years, school systems across the state have been forced to address the presence of Confederate imagery on campus.
In 2015, administrators at a Montgomery County high school suspended two dozen students after they arrived at the school carrying Confederate flags and wearing clothing clad with Confederate imagery.
A Montgomery County Schools spokesperson told The Roanoke Times at the time the Confederate flag was banned from campus after it was used to intimidate minority students in the 2001-02 school year.
According to division spokesman Ryan Edwards, the Bedford County School system has not placed any prohibitions on Confederate items “that do not cause an interruption to the instructional day.”
Hope Cupit — who has one child attending Jefferson Forest and two children that already have graduated from the high school — said the school division’s current code “is too vague” to allow administrators to address issues like the one that happened at Jefferson Forest.
“It doesn’t give any examples,” Cupit said. “In order for us to help our administrators we need to have a specific policy.”
School board member John Hicks Jr. agreed the division’s dress code needs to be revised.
“I think a change in the student dress code is warranted,” Hicks said.
Schuch said school officials have held a series of meetings with parents and other groups to find a way to address the issue, including a meeting with the division’s advisory team that is made up of students, parents and faculty members.
“We started having some very difficult discussions about this issue,” Schuch said. “The consensus at that meeting was that banning the Confederate flag would be a good idea because of the distractions to the learning process at our schools.”
Schuch recommended the division hold a series of public discussions on the issue, which would give school board members the opportunity to get public input before the board revises the student conduct and dress code for the next school year.
“That usually is revised and voted on around April or May,” Schuch said. “This will give us an opportunity to have these discussions with our young people and within the larger community.”
School board member Jason Johnson agreed.
“I’m glad these conversations have already started,” Johnson said. “I think we need to keep these conversations going.”
School board chairwoman Julie Bennington said the school division should use the incident at Jefferson Forest as “a teachable moment.”
“We may not have thought that something like this could happen based on how our policy was written,” Bennington said. “We now know that this can happen and I’m looking forward to making the necessary changes to make sure that no student feels threatened or alienated.”