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Bedford County approves school dress code revisions banning attire with 'offensive' images but critics want more

Bedford County approves school dress code revisions banning attire with 'offensive' images but critics want more

BEDFORD — After months of contentious debate, the Bedford County School Board on Thursday adopted a policy regarding racially offensive images on school campuses, although some said the board’s decision was cowardly in not specifically banning Confederate flags.

The board voted 5-2 to adopt the division’s Student Conduct Code for the 2019-20 school year, with an emphasis on the division’s dress code. School board members Richard Downey, Marcus Hill, Julie Bennington, Susan Kirby and Marcus Leamy voted to approve the revisions of the text that was presented to the board in April. School board members John Hicks and Jason Johnson voted against the revised text.

Members of the school board and residents of Bedford County have been divided on the issue following a Feb. 4 incident during the first day of Jefferson Forest High School’s Spirit Week, which was “Country vs. Country Club” day at the school and students were allowed to dress accordingly.

During a class change, several students photographed themselves displaying Confederate battle flags in different areas across campus. One photo shows a student draped in the flag, captioned with a defense of the banner as a symbol of “history and heritage.”

The photographs initially were shared on Snapchat before being uploaded to Facebook on Feb. 5 by a parent of a Jefferson Forest High School student. Dozens of residents have attended meetings of the school board since the incident to express opinions on how the division would address the issue — some urging board members and administrators to revise the school division’s dress and conduct code to include a ban on racially offensive images like the Confederate flag.

Residents that oppose the ban — some wore clothing that displayed a Confederate flag — expressed concerns a ban would violate the First Amendment rights of students in Bedford County.

The change to the dress code approved Thursday says, “BCPS operates in a manner that respects differences based on sex, race, color, national origin, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, ancestry, marital or parental status,” and bans “attire that has language or images that are offensive, profane or vulgar” and “is reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption to the learning environment.”

The new student conduct code also states “some school or classroom activities and curriculum may require specific dress guidelines,” and “any such requirements will be explained by the school staff and addressed in a course syllabus/parent letter.”

Mac Duis, chief operations officer for the division, said the revised dress code was based on input from school board members and a study of legal issues related to school division dress codes.

“This is the revised text amendments since our last meeting in April,” Duis said Thursday.

Amy Smith — who has spoken in favor of a ban on the Confederate flag at every school board meeting since the incident in February — said the new dress code “basically says the same thing as it did before.”

“Here we are again talking about a ban on the Confederate flag,” Smith said. “By not banning the Confederate flag you are openly allowing students to break the law. Bedford County Public Schools, by not banning the Confederate flag, is supporting white supremacy.”

Hicks said the approved revision was “too vague.”

“We can do the safe thing or do the right thing tonight,” Hicks said. “I think we should include specific language to include Confederate or Nazi flags.”

Johnson agreed. “This is an improvement from what we had,” he said. “However, I feel it could be vastly improved.”

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