Residents of Bedford County remain divided about how Bedford County Public Schools should address racially offensive images on school campuses — including the Confederate flag — following an incident in February at Jefferson Forest High School.
Dozens of residents attended the Bedford County School Board meeting April 11 to voice their opinions on the division’s revision of its student conduct code, with an emphasis on the division’s dress code.
More than a dozen residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, which drew a standing-room only crowd. Some residents urged school officials to revise the dress and conduct code to include a ban on racially offensive images like the Confederate flag. Residents opposed to a ban — some wearing clothing that displayed a Confederate flag — said it would violate the First Amendment rights of students.
Remarks from both sides often drew cheers and applause.
“I want to thank everyone that came out from both sides tonight,” one woman said during the meeting. “It shows a good representation of Bedford County. Bedford County is people that want the right to be hateful and people that want to be protected.”
The incident that started the discussion between residents and the school division occurred on Feb. 4 during the first day of Jefferson Forest’s Spirit Week, which was “Country vs. Country Club” theme day, 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 were shared on Snapchat before being uploaded to Facebook on Feb. 5 by a parent of a Jefferson Forest student. Dozens of residents have attended school board meetings since the incident to express their opinions on how the division should address the issue.
Doug Cooper said a ban on the Confederate flag would violate the First Amendment rights of students.
“I had two children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren in the school system,” Cooper said. “I am concerned about the First Amendment rights of any student in Bedford County and their right to express themselves. In fact, I do believe the First Amendment protects unpopular speech because you don’t have to protect speech that everyone likes. I understand being offended, but you can’t make enough rules or ban enough things to satisfy everyone.”
Boyd Hubbard, who also spoke against a ban, expressed concerns about what additional items would be banished if the board supported a ban on the Confederate flag.
“People say the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism,” Boyd said. “The Ku Klux Klan also carries the American flag. Are we going to ban the American flag also?”
NAACP Bedford branch President Robert Carson disagreed.
“I don’t have a problem with the Confederate flag,” Carson said. “I have a problem with what it represents.”
Mac Duis, chief operations officer for Bedford County Public Schools, presented the school board with a revision recommendation to the dress code section of the Student Conduct Handbook. Duis said staff looked at the policies of school divisions across Virginia when drafting the recommended changes.
“We have done a lot of homework and a lot of listening through this,” Duis told the school board. “And I know you all have as well.”
The current dress code for the school division has no prohibitions on items like the Confederate flag but bans items that are “disruptive, distracting, revealing, or interferes with the educational process.”
The recommended change to the dress code Duis presented April 11 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.”
School board members were divided on the recommended changes.
Board member Susan Kirby said the suggested revision did not address specific imagery like a Confederate flag.
“I understand where you are going with this, but it is too vague,” Kirby said. “It needs to be in black and white. If I wear my Confederate flag to school it is an offense. If I wear my Black Power shirt to school it is an offense.”
School board member John Hicks agreed.
“Parents won’t know how to dress their kids in the morning,” Hicks said. “We reduced the list of things a student can’t wear down to three vague categories that will be open to interpretation.”
School board member Marcus Hill expressed concern the division will have to continually revise the list of prohibited items if the board adopts any specific ban in next year’s student code of conduct.
“Are we trying to write a policy where we are banning ourselves out of everything?” Hill asked. “What’s next? If a student brings a Bible to school and someone is offended are we going to ban the Bible? We need to be cautious about what we are doing here.”
School board member Martin Leamy agreed.
“This needs to be addressed at a behavioral level,” Leamy said. “If we don’t make this a behavior-based policy we are heading down a slippery slope.”
Superintendent Doug Schuch said staff would revise the draft according to recommendations from the school board before it is scheduled to approve next year’s student conduct code in May.
“That’s why we wanted to bring this to you tonight,” Schuch said. “We just want to make sure whatever comes from this will be able to hold up against any challenge from a legal standpoint.”