The issue of banning the Confederate flag on Onteora Central School District grounds versus free speech was the first order of discussion by Board of Education trustees at their September 26 meeting. This was followed by public commentary with a handful of people speaking not necessarily for or against the southern symbol, but concerned overall about what it means and how it affects their children, including providing a safe school environment. Unlike when trustees were accused by some of the public of rushing to remove the Indian Mascot, the Tuesday meeting at Bennett Elementary School marked the third scheduled conversation on this topic.
The end result of the debate focused on the possibility of setting up a committee, or revising the district dress code policy to include banning specific symbols, including the Confederate flag. Trustee Robert-Burke Warren who said he was from the “deep south,” read a part of the Onteora dress code. “‘Items that are vulgar, obscene or libelous to denigrate others from color, creed, disabilities, gender, national origin, ethnic groups, sexual orientation, race, religion, religious practices, weight, or socio economic background’ those things are all banned.” He explained that the Confederate flag falls under this dress code. However, teachers have requested language specific to the Confederate symbol. Warren continued, “What would happen if the dress code was amended to specifically state the Confederate flag would be banned…which I think we should do, the time is right.” He explained that it has different meanings to people but its origin was specific. “The Confederate flag has always been a white supremacists’ flag, but the strength of the narrative of what people want it to be has held sway for decades, and to say it’s OK or to wait until there’s an incident, bloodshed or someone gets hurt, that’s a dereliction of our duty to care and look after the students and have the teachers backs,” he said.
Trustee Laurie Osmond agreed. “I think we should be amending our dress code. As an example, Orange County North Carolina dress code states, ‘students are not allowed to wear clothing or other items with words, symbols, pictures or signs that uses profane or substantially disruptive, including items that are reasonably expected to intimidate other students on the basis of race, for example, KKK, swastika, and Confederate flag.’”
Trustee Valerie Storey had a different point of view. “Offensiveness is not enough to ban something, and potentially violating the first amendment rights because the students t-shirts are freedoms of expression, so these are points that also need to be understood when we are discussing this topic,” she said.
School Board President Kevin Salem said, “The first thing we heard from the teachers is, ‘this is what oppression looks like,’ and from that moment on I thought, I’m so glad these are the people teaching our children.” Salem requested that Superintendent Victoria McLaren set up a district wide committee in order to “widen the dialogue about what it is we want in our district going forward in terms of fairness, in terms of educating children about fairness, equality and justice.”
McLaren said, “We’ve constantly reiterated how wonderful this district is and I think we have so many strengths but there is always room to improve our culture, there is always room to better ourselves.”
West Hurley resident Terry Leroy commented during the public portion of the discussion. “You can set up your committees, it might not be such a bad idea, but you will probably not get a policy change from that.”
In other news…
The new West Hurley Hannaford grocery store is proving a good neighbor to the school district. Upon its first opening day it donated $5000 to the district and is now bringing in the theatrical nutrition group, “Foodplay,” for grades kindergarten-through-three at Woodstock and Phoenicia Elementary Schools.
Trustees are questioning the value of paying $2675 for National School Board Association yearly membership. Trustee Rob Kurnit said, “It’s a National lobbying organization, that’s the way we should look at it.” Osmond said the group’s website has plenty of information for the board at no cost.