School board in Virginia to consider Confederate flag ban

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BEDFORD, Va. (WDBJ) — People filled a Bedford County School Board meeting Thursday night with calls to ban the confederate flag in schools.

This comes weeks after a picture of Jefferson Forest High School students posing with confederate flags on school grounds sparked outrage among some on social media.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” said parent, Leslie Loucks, at the meeting. "Regardless of what the children in that picture may have intended by displaying those flags, we cannot ignore that too many those flags represent a heritage of racism and fear."

The picture was taken during Spirit Week at the high school on Monday, Feb. 4. It was shared between students on social media and eventually found its way to parent Lyman Connor.

His daughter showed him the pictures, and he posted them on Facebook with a message that said, in part, “I'm seeking some public support for my daughter and other children of color attending Jefferson Forest High in Forest, Va.”

The post was shared 1,700 times.

The school board met Thursday for the first time since the incident and parents attended the meeting to speak out against the public display of the confederate flag on school property.

Several community members said the picture is a sign of a larger issue within the school and community.

"My child should feel safe and protected in his learning environment," said Miranda Ray, a parent, "not bullied and intimidated at any time."

Connor said that the flag picture was not the first race related incident his daughter encountered.

"I was thinking, maybe I need to pull my daughter out of the school district,” Connor said. “Someone who actually wants to be at that school."

Eight people took the podium, including a teacher, addressing the school board directly. Many said they don't just want a conversation, they want policy change.

"It's very hard to take this anti-bullying poster seriously with this policy in place,” said Spence White, a teacher at Jefferson Forest High School. “The dialogue on race is overdue, but before that can start in a meaningful way a strong message of inclusion is not just in order, but necessary."

Jessica Taylor just moved to Bedford County from Orange County, North Carolina, where, she told school board members, she encountered similar issues in the public schools. She said the community was eventually able to get the school system to change their student code of conduct and ban the confederate flag.

"We are actually calling for a ban on the confederate flags," Taylor said, "and all of its likenesses and its images."

Any change in policy is in the school board's hands.

Dr. John Hicks was the only school board member who showed definite support for changing the dress code.

Everyone on the school board made it clear that the conversation is far from over.

Marcus Hill and Jason Johnson mentioned bringing a third-party facilitator in to host the discussion, saying it would be helpful to have someone who has experience with this issue. They also said they would want to hear from a lot of people across the community before making any decisions.

Richard Downey raised concerns over potentially being too restrictive and depriving students of expression, but he said he would like to have some more input.

Julie Bennington agreed that the board would like more input before moving forward and asked the administration to come up with a plan for discussion at their next meeting.

“Our job is to teach kids," Bennington said, "if that means teaching them about things that are racist, that’s what we’re going to do."

While any policy change is a board matter, Superintendent Dr. Doug Schuch said it’s a conversation that is important not just to Jefferson Forest, but the Bedford County community as a whole.

According to Schuch, one week after the picture was taken, BCPS had an already planned advisory team meeting with members of the community, including students, spanning all across the county.

Schuch said they viewed it as an opportunity to open a conversation. They asked the advisory team if they had heard about the events at JF and what their reactions were.

The BCPS administration also asked the advisory team if they believe BCPS has a blatant racism problem, a more subtle racism problem and if they should ban the confederate flag.

Schuch told those in attendance at the school board meeting there were no definitive answers, but there was a consensus that banning the flag would probably be a good idea because of distractions it can cause.

He also shared that a few minutes after the conversation a “young learner” raised his hand and expressed concern, raising the point, “Are we sure doing that actually makes the situation better or might it get worse?”

Schuch stressed that he doesn’t know the answers to these issues either, but moving forward it will be an important discussion.

"The appropriate response for the school board is to begin this conversation this evening," Schuch said, "and have that very difficult conversation."