“Historical context and use of the symbol as a harbinger of violence and murder is at issue here,” Hillsborough resident Katherine Walker tells the Orange County Schools Board of Education Monday, April 24, 2017. Walker, who has three children in Orange County Schools, also held up blue and red bandanas, which have been associated with gangs, and a swastika as examples of “disruptive, violent” symbols that schools have banned. Mark Schultz mschultz@newsobserver.com
“Historical context and use of the symbol as a harbinger of violence and murder is at issue here,” Hillsborough resident Katherine Walker tells the Orange County Schools Board of Education Monday, April 24, 2017. Walker, who has three children in Orange County Schools, also held up blue and red bandanas, which have been associated with gangs, and a swastika as examples of “disruptive, violent” symbols that schools have banned. Mark Schultz mschultz@newsobserver.com

Orange County

Group continues push to ban Confederate flag in Orange County Schools

By Mark Schultz

mschultz@newsobserver.com

April 25, 2017 10:39 AM

UPDATED April 26, 2017 04:44 PM

HILLSBOROUGH

The Confederate flag unfurled at the Orange County school board meeting Monday night as students, parents and clergy continued their push to ban the flag on school grounds.

The Board of Education did not directly respond to any of the two dozen speakers, including two who displayed the Confederate battle flag at the podium and one who opposed the proposed ban.

Instead, Superintendent Todd Wirt announced the formation of an Orange County Schools equity committee, first announced in February, which will study the flag and other issues. The group’s first meeting is 6 p.m. May 3 at Efland-Cheeks Global Elementary School.

After Monday’s meeting, the debate continued in the lobby as Latarndra Strong, a founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, introduced herself to James Ward, the speaker who said he felt like the “Lone Ranger,” when he rose to defend the flag.

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Motion fails

For a second time, board member Matthew Roberts asked his fellow members to have their first public conversation about banning the flag.

Roberts, who says he always believed wearing or displaying the flag was a free-speech right, has said that students speaking at board meetings and his own first-grade child being called the N-word on a school bus convinced him the schools need to do more to make all students feel safe.

“It’s not for a committee (to decide),” he said Monday night. “We were elected to make policy. Tonight we’re acting on 29 policy updates that were not vetted by a committee. ... If adult teachers are fearful to speak out, imagine how fearful our students are to come and speak out.”

“If I am wrong, I and the public have the right to hear why I am wrong,” he added.

No one responded, and the motion died for lack of a second.

Equity task force

This week the Orange County Schools announced the makeup of its new Equity Task Force and a website that will update its progress.

The 28 members include Wirt, who chose the members; the coalition’s Strong; principals; teachers; parents; students and others.

The group will engage diverse voices, analyze practices and identify disparate outcomes in education, make recommendations and help implement plans.

The district has hired OpenSource Strategies to work with the task force. The “woman of color-owned” North Carolina-based national consulting practice “amplifies the work of social justice groups as both units and agents of structural change,” according to the district’s website.

School board Chairman Steve Halkiotis told the 120 people at Monday’s meeting that Orange County is not alone in facing these issues.

“We are merely a small piece of a greater society,” he said. “There is a significant amount of unrest that has been unleashed in our society by people who should know better.”

He assured the crowd the task force will take up symbols that intimidate, harass and instill fear.

“We don’t want that in our schools, and we won’t have that in our schools,” he said.

Paper dolls

After Roberts’ motion failed, students presented a petition with 1,096 signatures — 954 of them from Orange County and over half from Hillsborough, they said — to ban the Confederate flag.

“We could have kept going, collecting more signatures, but we wanted to present this to you so you can see how many students, parents and community members already support the ban,” they read from a statement.

As they spoke, people rose from the audience raising chains of paper dolls representing the petition signers.

But as the students approached the stage to hand the petitions to board members, Halkiotis stopped them, redirecting them to the board’s communications officer and a table off to the side.

The board has been hearing from ban proponents for months.

The push began after Strong said she saw a Confederate flag in the Orange High student parking lot three days in a row while dropping off her daughter. In recent weeks, an Orange High student has worn a Confederate flag T-shirt to school that says people offended by it need a history lesson.

Speakers on Monday said while the flag represents Southern heritage to some, its association with slavery, the Jim Crow South, segregation and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof makes it wrong for schools, outside of history lessons.

“In the black community, the Confederate flag takes on a different meaning,” said Brooks Graebner, the rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough.

“This reminds them of the slavery they suffered so long, reminds them of their ancestors,” he said. “It has a deep, deep meaning and is very hurtful.”

Jerry Love, prison chaplain at Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, said he grew up in Savannah, Georgia, amid reminders of the old South.

“It never brought any sense of pride to me,” he said. “The Confederate flag has always represented hate and racism. I am a descendant of slaves. It is offensive.”

“Symbols have meaning,” Love continued. “Today when it’s used to intimidate and bully students we have to ban it. We have to get rid of it.”

Kelly Doherty’s voice broke as she told the board she would keep coming back, next time with her children, to show them “when something is happening that is not OK, you show up again and again.”

“I will be back to say it’s not OK to those kids that are hurting in our schools,” she said.

‘A foreign country’

In the lobby after the meeting, Ward, a descendant of four Confederate soldiers, said he was surprised by the one-sided public comments.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” he said. Still, he said he was glad he spoke.

Strong soon came up and introduced herself.

“I just resent people trying to eliminate my heritage,” Ward told her.

But Strong said she was not trying to do that.

“My goal is not to attack you,” she said, as her high school daughter Marilyn Allen looked on. “My goal is to have a safe environment for my family.”

“You can’t step in my shoes,” Ward replied. “I can’t step in yours. This school has a right to ban the Confederate flag. I’m just saying they shouldn’t.”

About then the board meeting in the auditorium broke up, and Roberts, the member who had unsuccessfully asked for a discussion, headed outside.

A group of supporters still gathered in the lobby applauded.

Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950

What do you think?

Do you support schools’ banning the wearing or displaying of the Confederate flag? Tell us at editor@newsobserver.com for possible publication in a future issue.