A few weeks ago, a biracial thirteen-year-old walked into a classroom at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland and was rattled to learn that a classmate had drawn a swastika on his arm. Another girl told her that it was his way of protesting a proposed ban on hate symbolsthe swastika, yes, but especially the Confederate flagwithin Orange County Public Schools.
“I went and told the counselor,” says the student, who asked not to be named. “I reported it and made my statement, but I never heard anything about it after that.”
The eighth grader says the months-old debate, which may be addressed by the school board Wednesday, has been heated. When she wore a “BAN IT NOW” T-shirt to show solidarity with the Hate Free Schools Coalition, a group of more than two hundred students, parents, teachers, and community members that’s been urging the school system to ban the Confederate flag and other hate symbols on OCPS property since December, she was yelled at and heckled in school.
“It got really bad. I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. “Ever since they started talking about the ban, it’s like the only thing that’s on my mind at school. I’m always afraid someone is going to come up behind me and hit me or threaten me. But when people talk to me and say, ‘It’s heritage,’ and I go back to my own research and tell them it’s not about heritage. It’s a symbol for hate. They don’t understand the facts.”
That sentiment was unwrapped by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who on May 19 delivered a speech, which went viral, on his city’s decision to remove its Confederate monuments: “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn.”
Stacey Sewall, a member of the Hate Free Schools Coalition, says Landrieu’s words apply to the Confederate flags seen on hats, shirts, and backpacks inside Orange High School in the fall of 2016 that prompted OHS parent La Tarndra Strong to found the HFSC.
“We know that the heritage that they are supporting is a heritage of hate,” Sewall says. “The Confederate flag is closely associated with white supremacists at this time.”
North Carolina’s love affair with the Confederacy is nothing new. Of the one hundred counties in the state, seventy-two of them house ninety-nine Confederate monuments. Seven are in Wake County. Durham and Chapel Hill have one apiece; one is on UNC’s campus and the other is in front of the old Durham courthouse.
In 2015, South Carolina took down the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds following a mass shooting at an African-American church by a white supremacist. But a few months later, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a law protecting Confederate monuments by removing control over them from local governments and requiring an act of the General Assembly for them to be altered or removed.
The Orange County Board of Education is scheduled to meet Wednesday at one p.m. to discuss potential changes to the dress code. While Sewall is hopeful that, by day’s end, hate symbols will be banned, she’s upset that it’s taken nearly six months for the board to act.
Court rulings indicate that the school system has the authority to ban hate speech on its campuses. Several federal circuit courts have found that Confederate flags have the potential to be “disruptive” and can heighten racial tensions, and thus, school boards can prohibit them.
“Schools ban speech all the time,” Sewall says. “You can’t have a tobacco logo on your T-shirt. You can’t make threats. You can’t have T-shirts that promote illegal drug use. The school has an obligation to protect its students from messages that could harm them or cause them to have their learning interrupted. What we’ve tried to communicate is that symbols have meaning and they’re communicating something, not just what the bearer of that symbol thinks.”
Whatever happens this week, Sewall believes the community needs to acknowledge the deep racial divide that still exists in rural Orange County and beyond.
“It remains to be seen how that discussion will go, but it’s definitely indicative of how deep racism is in our society that this can go on this long without a response from the board,” she says. “To me, this discussion about the flag is definitely emblematic of the larger issue of racism in our community, in our schools, and in our society, and how much people don’t value everyone in our society.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “These Colors Should Run.”