ROCKY MOUNT — Franklin County School Board members tackled the question of whether to explicitly ban the Confederate flag in the school dress code, ultimately postponing a decision for the third time after a lengthy, contentious, emotional discussion. The motion to table any updates to the dress code passed 4 to 3, with one member of the eight-member board not present.
Before the board addressed the issue, three speakers offered comment to the board condemning the flag. “The flag just straight up represents slavery,” said Franklin County farmer Sherman Witcher. “It’s offensive to black people and we hate it.”
Member-at-large Penny Blue, the only African American on the board, first raised the issue in October, citing the Confederate flag a symbol of racism. At Monday’s meeting, she said the school board needs to make it clear that the flag represents discrimination, for the sake of educating students. “It has always been about hate,” she said.
Other school board members said they struggled with the issue, taking pains to condemn the flag, but questioning whether it’s constitutional to ban it. “I don’t like the flag either,” said Boone district representative Donna Cosmato. “We don’t have the right to tell somebody else they cannot do it.”
“I would rather people choose not to do it than be told they cannot,” said Rocky Mount representative Jeff Worley.
Blue countered that the proposed dress code change as worded shouldn’t be adopted because it’s too vague to be effective. Under that guideline, “I can wear anything I want and say it doesn’t mean hate,” Blue said.
Chairwoman Julie Nix said that she has had direct discussion with students who said wearing the image of the Confederate flag wasn’t a controversy. “I just feel like we’re going to drive a wedge between the students that isn’t there right now.”
One of two student members of the school board, senior Madeline Pedersen, spoke up to disagree with officials’ assertion that there’s no evidence of controversy. “This is a divisive topic,” she said.
Ultimately the majority chose to keep investigating the issue after Blue made a motion to table it.
The tense discussion began in earnest at the Oct. 14 meeting, as the board considered simplifying its dress code and loosening restrictions on hemlines as parents had complained of being unable to find clothes in stores that were in compliance. Blue brought up the Confederate flag in the context of a proposed addition to the dress code stating “Clothing may not depict discriminatory, obscene or hate speech imagery.”
Other board members balked at the idea of banning the Confederate flag. Board Vice Chairman and Blackwater District representative Charles Jamison argued that sporting that flag can’t be universally interpreted as an expression of hate, while Cosmato expressed concerns that such a ban could be seen as a violation of free speech rights.
Debate continued at the Nov. 11 school board meeting, with K-12 Director of Curriculum Brenda Muse, also African American, sharing that black middle school students have told her they were uncomfortable reporting their concerns about the flag to teachers even though they found it upsetting.
At the November meeting, the Rev. Walter Lawson, president of the Franklin County branch of the NAACP, decried the flag as a symbol of white supremacy and called for it to be banned from school grounds.
Superintendent Mark Church maintains the crux of the matter rests on whether evidence exists that displays of the Confederate flag have disrupted students’ ability to learn. Monday, he said staff have found no evidence it has.
Bedford County’s school board has wrestled with the same issue this year, sparked by a Feb. 4 event at Jefferson Forest High School where several students posted photographs of themselves posing with Confederate flags they brought to school.
The school board made a dress code change worded similarly to the proposed addition to Franklin County’s code, but the board did not specifically ban the flag, and has faced repeated criticism since.