In a five-to-one vote, the Onteora Central School District Board of Education adopted a resolution that denounces the Confederate Flag, describing it as a symbol of intimidation, harassment and hate. But the resolution does not ban the flag, noting First Amendment rights. However, Superintendent Victoria McLaren said disciplinary action for its display might be taken on an “individual basis.”
Trustees Robert Burke-Warren, Rob Kurnit, Laurie Osmond, Bennet Ratcliff and Kevin Salem voted in favor, and Trustee Valerie Storey voted against. Trustee Lindsay Shands was absent.
At its December 5 meeting at Phoenicia Elementary School, the Board’s discussions were finally put to rest following months of public meetings, debates and vetting from lawyers. Storey began the conversation with a motion for the Board to enter executive session for the purpose of lawyer feedback, and was told it violated the Open Meetings Laws. She then motioned for the resolution to be postponed until lawyers were contacted but it was defeated. Osmond said the resolution was vetted thoroughly by the lawyers. “Just to reiterate, this is the third time we’ve been told by the attorney in regards to the language in front of us, is fine.”
The conversation continued as Storey read part of the resolution. “‘Whereas, for millions of American, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of intolerance, injustice, and inequality, and Whereas, the Confederate battle flag has always been recognized as a deeply offensive symbol’ and (it) continues…there are people that see the flag and think of the Civil War and that means to me that it’s intimidated people who see it as a part of history…” She continued, “What I see is people’s personal opinions being put into the resolution.”
“We’ll that’s the point of the resolution,” said Salem.
Ratcliff agreed. “This is a resolution for us to express ourselves.”
Storey expressed herself. “But other people see it as a part of history and [do] not see it as hatred and everything like that, so we need to be inclusive of everybody,” she said.
Osmond said, “I want to point out that those two paragraphs (that Storey read) came from the National Education Association and they came directly from their model school board resolution on the confederate flag that was found by Trustee Kurnit’s research.” Kurnit, Osmond, and Shands crafted the resolution.
Warren took a different path. “It’s an objective fact, it’s not my opinion as a liberal or as a human being, or as anything, it’s not my opinion that this (pointing to the resolution) is true, it’s true!” he said. “I didn’t make this up, it’s not because of prejudices I have on anybody, and everyone has prejudices, I’m not different. But this is true!”
A handful of students attended the meeting as a Civics class requirement and at one point during the lengthy sometimes heated debate, senior student Heather Rotella, who was sitting in the audience, passed a noted to Student Representative Ben Rauschendorfer. He read her note. “You are only taking one side with this…I do not see it as hatred, you are making it that way, so you are placing judgment on me.”
Salem answered. “I hope that you understand that other people feel threatened, not because you’re threatening them, not because it’s your intent, but because it’s the power of a symbol at a certain time in our current history.”
After all opinions were exhausted, a tweak was made to the resolution by removing one paragraph that stated, “The Superintendent, Building Principals or designees will investigate and file a report as outlined in administrative regulations, code of conduct or dignity for all students act policy…”
Instead the resolution references the Dignity for All Students Act that States, “School employees who witness or receive a report (oral or written) of harassment, bullying and/or discrimination must orally notify the Superintendent, Principal, or their designee no later than one (1) school day after witnessing or receiving a report of such incident. The employee must then file a written report within two (2) school days after making the oral report.”
Gender neutral language in dress code
The board agreed that a sentence or two will be inserted into the dress code policy for the purpose of clarifying gender neutral language when it gets handed down to the Code of Conduct and student handbook. Trustees agreed to make the policy general and not get bogged down in specifics. Kurnit said, “The fact that we have different things happening in different schools, is not consistent.”
Osmond said, “It’s my opinion if we inserted a line into the policy where it’s saying administration enforcement of the dress code will be gender neutral…”
She suggested Trustees look at how other school districts have written their policy to be gender neutral and use it as a template. “When you look at our Code of Conduct that is where you get the language that’s questionable as far as gender neutrality goes, for example,” Osmond read from Code of Conduct, “‘extremely revealing such as tube, neck or halter tops, extremely plunging front or back neck lines, see through garments that exposes the body’s private parts or undergarments.”
Salem agreed but said no employee enforces the dress code with the intent to be gender bias. “When it happens it is often quite unintentional and a matter of somebody’s personal subjectivity.” He suggested some kind of anti-bias training for staff.