The Confederate battle flag and the meaning of the Constitution’s First Amendment was once again a topic at the Tuesday, September 12, Onteora District Board of Education meeting at Woodstock Elementary School. Several teachers, staff and parents of the district turned out to speak during public commentary with all requesting that the board create a ban through policy that would prohibit wearing or displaying the Confederate image that many see as racist. At this point the district policy states if certain clothing is deemed disruptive to the education process it can be prohibited. In response to recent national rallies by Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists, Interim Assistant Superintendent for curriculum Marystephanie Corsones presented a tolerance training that was given to staff before the start of the school year. It outlined the important parts of keeping children in a nurturing, safe, and caring environment. She pointed out that generally people are not hateful. “We have all watched recent events unfold in this country,” she said. “Most recently Hurricanes Harvey and Irma decimated Houston and the state of Florida and we were reminded that during the worst of times, we do unite during the face of tragedies.”
Corsones said the district would continue to teach respectful dialogue, tolerance, and diversity. However, teachers want to take it a step further and ban the confederate image altogether when it’s not used as a historical teaching tool, noting that it’s often offended or intimidated students of color. Teachers have said that because these students are in the minority they will often stay silent out of fear. High School Teacher Robin Perls said, “Our Administration has handled various referrals due to the rise of disrespectful behavior that occurred after a student was allowed to wear a shirt with a Confederate flag in our mixed race classroom.” All teachers agreed that the image when worn or displayed by a student is a disruption, consisting of intimidation and intolerance.
Definitions and disruptions
High School History teacher Jason Calinda said, “I’m here tonight to address the historical issue of the Confederate flag.” He explained that the flag disappeared from public after the Civil War, only to resurface during the Jim Crow era when laws segregated African American people.
Board trustees are wary of banning the image altogether because it runs a risk of violating a student’s right to free speech. However, in an educational setting there appears to be a grey area on what is deemed free speech.
Defining the First Amendment in a school setting continues to be debated, citing Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1969 over war protests in the form of wearing a black armband on school grounds, and most recently a 2007 case commonly titled, “Bong Hits For Jesus.” In 1969 the Court sided with the students and in 2007 the Court sided with the school district.
What is defined as a disruption while walking a line of First Amendment rights continues to vex even the highest Constitutional authorities. Trustee Laurie Osmond said following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which lead to an overflow of violence including three deaths, the climate changed because the KKK were seen as young people without hoods. She said, “If a student feels threatened, intimidated, harassed, any of those things and more, that is disruption to that student in the moment that may ruin their day, their year or their experience in school.”
This topic of discussion will continue at the next Board of Education meeting on September 26. Superintendent Victoria McLaren said she would invite the district’s lawyer to present parameters that are outlined regarding free speech within a school setting.
Extension on West Hurley sale
The board extended the contract agreement between the school district and Kerry Danenberg, the purchaser of West Hurley Elementary School, for 56 days. This is to allow time for Danenberg to sort out the issue regarding the status of the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit held by the district, in connection with discharge from a wastewater septic system. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) never signed the SPDES application in 1990. The district has always paid the annual permit fee and the DEC website identifies the School as having a SPDES permit. In order for the sale of the school to be complete, however, it must have a valid SPDES permit and at this point without a signature, it is not valid. The 32,262 square foot Levins and 11,282 square foot Ryan buildings were contracted to be sold to Danenberg, of Brooklyn, in February 2017 for the asking price of $800,000, with a $40,000 down payment.
The board approved an increase of fees by $5,000 from $45,000-to-$50,000 to Dr. Arthur DiNapoli to include the supervision of a certified athletic trainer. DiNapoli will be directly on-call when the trainer is working.
Trustee Lindsay Shands said that after speaking with people in the community, she wondered if there was a way to promote the new Eagle mascot more. “What I’m hearing from them is they would like to see the Eagle mascot more prominent on the soccer fields, baseball fields, football, softball fields…I don’t know if we can do banners, signs, I don’t know how much this would cost, but not just in the gym,” she said.