The Onteora School Board voted 6-1 last month to ban displays of the Confederate flag and swastikas, revising the district’s code of conduct to include the symbols under prohibited conduct that “endangers the moral well-being, health, safety or welfare of others,” after incidents involving both symbols over the last two school years. The decision came just over a year after the board passed a resolution denouncing the flag as “a symbol of intimidation, harassment and hate.”
The board had considered a ban last year, but opted for the non-binding resolution, passed in December 2017. At the recent board meeting, on Jan. 22, trustee Bennet Ratcliff called that decision an “error,” and commended the board for facing a “difficult moment.”
“We voted to protect freedom of speech and we passed a resolution…and it didn’t work,” Ratcliff said.
While displays of the flag in the district have “always been a problem” according to trustee Robert Burke Warren, some members of the school community see a troubling connection of recent displays to a rise in white nationalism around the country, and to other related events, such as the shooting at a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C. by a white supremacist in 2015. Former board member Tony Fletcher recalled at last month’s board meeting seeing the Confederate flag at the 2015 graduation ceremony on a student’s fingernails and on a truck in the parking lot, ten days after the shooting.
“It struck me that someone was willing to be that provocative,” Fletcher said.
A tenth-grade student told Woodstock Times she could think of four or five recent instances of students displaying a flag, such as on a sweatshirt or belt buckle, but that overall students were reluctant to do so “because they know they’ll get in trouble,” sometimes punished with in-school suspension, she said. She asked to remain anonymous for this article in order to stay out of what she described as “a lot of drama.”
Fear of punishment apparently didn’t stop several high school students from unfurling a half-U.S., half-Confederate flag in the cafeteria in December, an event that was filmed and posted online and shared between parents.
“They knew they were going to get in trouble,” the student said.
And last school year, a swastika was drawn on a chalkboard, Superintendent Victoria McLaren told Woodstock Times, adding that no specific action was taken in response “because it was found in an empty classroom.”
Regarding the flag, McLaren said she is not aware of in-school suspension or any other punishment having been given to students.
“If something is not against the rules you can’t punish it,” she said, describing the district’s approach to future discipline as “ progressive,” where any incident will be handled by local faculty and staff on an individual basis.
The newest decision is designed for action. Board President Kevin Salem said the ban gives teachers the authority to enforce the code of conduct, and the assurance that the board supports them in doing so.
“We also have to expect them to do it,” he said.
Other students expressed mixed reactions. After school on a recent Thursday, ninth-grader Logan Holmquist said he supports the ban on the swastika but not on the flag, “because it’s part of our history.” The student who asked not to be named gave a similar reason for opposing the ban. She said she isn’t offended by the flag, but acknowledged that some people might be. “If you wore it in Kingston you’d probably get shot,” she said.
Tenth-grader Steven Patij acknowledged that the flag’s place in history made it a worthwhile subject for school, but supported the ban on it. “It’s racist and excessive,” he said. He added that he has never seen one at school, and that racism isn’t a big problem there. “You don’t hear about it much,” he said. “I mean, a few kids.”
In the board’s public discussion over the ban, Trustee Valerie Storey, who was the lone member opposed to both the resolution and the ban, asked Superintendent McLaren how many incidents involving the flag had occurred over the year since the resolution was passed. McLaren said she didn’t have specific numbers, in part because there were no rules for reporting incidents.
Board President Kevin Salem said there had been “anecdotally, a lot,” but did not specify an amount. “Isn’t one enough?” he asked.
Storey said the passing the ban would be opening a legal “case of worms,” and asked the board to consider the views of people who don’t see the flag as a symbol of hate, but as a part of history. Other board members expressed their confidence in the ban’s legal strength, up to the possible level of the Supreme Court. Board Trustee Laurie Osmond said the cornerstone of the ban was “empathy,” and emphasized the importance of recognizing “white privilege,” in which one is blind to the experiences of minorities, who may have a different reaction to the same thing.
McLaren said previous legal opinions applied to districts with larger minority representation than Onteora, where three out of four students are white. She said the district’s perspective has “shifted,” and that she is concerned that non-white students feel too outnumbered to speak out.
“Our minority populations are so small that they don’t have that opportunity,” McLaren told Woodstock Times.
Parent Sneha Kapadia told the board that she, as a person of color, supports the ban.
“It’s about time,” she said. “I think it’s taken too long.”
Al Caselli, whose daughter went to Onteora high school and whose grandchildren attend Phonecia Elementary, stopped on his way into the Hong Kong restaurant across from the school on Route 28, and said students should be able to wear what they want. “I am one hundred percent for freedom of speech,” he said.
“I just do not see what there is to embrace about this part of history,” Lisa Phillips, who is Jewish, told Woodstock Times regarding the flag. She said her daughter, who is in high school and declined to be interviewed for this article, has not felt personally assaulted by the flag, but doesn’t like it. At the time of her interview, she was unaware of any incident involving a swastika. Told about the one discovered in the classroom, she added via text message:
“It is evidence that the new policy is needed. This is hostile and inappropriate expression for a learning environment…Their first amendment rights preserve their freedom to display such symbols of hate as public expression, but the parameters should be different in the places where we are educating our children, already a difficult enough job. I am very grateful my daughter did not see this on the chalkboard.