The Bedford County School Board is still debating, still dithering over how to respond to the February Spirit Week day, “Country vs. Country Club,” that spiraled out of control at Jefferson Forest High School with some students displaying Confederate flags as their idea of how “country folk” behaved.
Some parents and community members were upset to learn students had brought the flags and other paraphernalia to school, taking photos and videos of themselves that they distributed via social media. One parent, the father of a student of color, was disturbed by the images and, fearing for his daughter and concerned about the atmosphere at the school, brought it to the attention of the public and school officials.
After an initial stumble by school officials, Superintendent Doug Schuch quickly took ownership of the crisis, issuing a strong statement affirming Bedford County Public Schools’ commitment to diversity, inclusion and tolerance for all. We and the entire Bedford County community, we believe, are grateful to Schuch for his decisive actions to take control of the incident.
Since the incident, the School Board, Schuch and central office staff have been trying to forge a consensus on how to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. Numerous work sessions with much discussion — both from board members and the general public — at regular board meetings … it’s been a busy past 2½ months for division leaders.
The division’s current dress code is rather nebulous. Students’ “dress, grooming, and appearance, including hairstyle, jewelry, and makeup” should not “disrupt or interfere” with the educational process. Anything that “interferes with the education process will not be acceptable.” It’s a policy that is intentionally vague and leaves enforcement up to leaders of each individual school.
But many parents and community leaders want something more concrete, more definitive, and we agree.
We have argued that Bedford County could address the issue in much the same way that Albemarle County Public Schools did earlier this year. In the wake of the deadly, white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, public pressure grew on the Albemarle board to explicitly ban the Confederate flag and other such symbols in the schools. Albemarle school leaders decided on a quick, efficient change: The superintendent merely made a reinterpretation of existing policy that would result in the Confederate flag becoming a forbidden symbol on students’ clothing.
But policy interpretations can change from superintendent to superintendent. For that reason, Schuch and division staff have proposed draft policy language that addresses concerns of specific targeted groups, respecting differences based on sex, race, national origin, gender and religion among others. Dress that intimidates students, either through language or images, or that causes or is likely to cause disruption in the educational environment is forbidden. But the Stars and Bars is not specifically mentioned, again leaving definitive interpretation and enforcement up to local school officials.
Perhaps, though, it is time Bedford board members simply take the plunge and follow the lead of the Montgomery County School Board which dealt with a similar problem in the 2001-02 school year when the Confederate flag was used to intimidate minority students. The board’s response was a tough, no-nonsense policy that has stood the test of time: an outright ban on any and all material that advocates hate and/or violence toward any group, period.
Here’s the relevant passage: “Students shall not at school, on school property, or at school activities wear or have in their possession any written material that is racially divisive. Examples include clothing, articles, material or publications or any item that denotes Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation-White Supremacy, Black Power, Neo-Nazi, or any hate group, or Confederate flags or articles. This list is not intended to be all inclusive.”
This controversy has dragged on long enough. The image it creates for Bedford County, indeed all of Central Virginia, is not one we want projected in the 21st century. Ours is a community of inclusion, tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness. The Bedford school trustees need to take quick, decisive action to tell the rest of Virginia and the nation, “This is who we are, and the Confederate flag does not represent our values or our beliefs.”