Carroll County Public Schools announced Wednesday night steps toward banning the Confederate flag and swastikas in its dress code, a move that would include clothing and memorabilia in schools, on vehicles on school grounds and at all school-sponsored events.
CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie clarified Wednesday the decision is not a school board decision because it is a regulation, not a policy.
“Our student dress code is regulated by regulations, not by board policy. This is my decision at this point,” Guthrie said. “I want to make clear, this falls under my authority.”
Guthrie said he would move forward with having Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Steven Johnson bring sample language for a change in the dress code, which would be looked at during the March school board meeting.
“What we’re talking about is a symbol that is generally accepted to promote hate,” Guthrie said. “Times change. Symbols change meanings. And that’s what’s happened in this case.”
Guthrie also said there will be a “cultural sensitivity approach to this,” adding that they’re not out to punish people, but out to educate people and make sure they understand why CCPS made this decision.
The decision was met with applause from those in attendance, after half a dozen people spoke in favor of banning the flag during public comment.
Six people — including community members, NAACP leaders and a CCPS student — spoke on the topic during public comment, all of whom were in favor of banning the Confederate flag. Each address of no more than three minutes was met with applause from those in the room.
Briana Gales, a student at Westminster High School who was there Wednesday on behalf of the school’s Minority Student Union, said students can’t focus with fellow classmates wearing the Confederate flag.
“Seeing students at our school wear the Confederate flag … is very uncomfortable and upsetting to me,” she said. “White supremacist and Ku Klux Klan members, they just wave that flag around to show they hate minorities.”
Jean Lewis, president of the county’s NAACP chapter also spoke.
Seeing these images on a repeated basis makes a difference in how a student can learn, Lewis said, echoing Gales’ comments.
“God created us all the same. Although our skin colors are different, as individuals, we are all the same,” she said.
Most of the board members expressed support of the plan, including Virginia Harrison.
Harrison, who is black, spoke of her experiences over the years in the county. She said she’s been spit on and called racial slurs, adding that it impacted her life.
“It’s always a reminder of someone saying you’re not welcome and we don’t want you here,” Harrison said. “It changes how you look at your world.”
Carroll County Public Schools’ attorney, Edmund O’Meally, gave a presentation to the board before the vote, laying out how the school system could legally prohibit these symbols in the dress code.
In a 10-page document, O’Meally went on to address related cases both in the state of Maryland, and nationally, and also related issues the school system and county have faced over a number of decades, to support the decision.
“In the not too distant past, Ku Klux Klan activity was a notorious, if not uncommon, occurrence in Carroll County; disdained by most, yet not hard to find. In recent years, a Board member resigned after using a racial epithet to describe dark colored rock observed at a school construction site, and a teacher was terminated after using a similar epithet to describe a trip to Baltimore in the presence of a young African-American teacher who subsequently resigned,” the legal document reads.
“As in Hardwick [v. Heyward, a 2013 case in South Carolina], there are situations where, in the current school year, students wear Confederate battle flag attire to school and drive pickup trucks flying the Confederate battle flag as they enter upon student parking lots. Increasing reports during this current school year by students, parents, and faculty evidence that the displace of the Confederate battle flag on student attire and in student parking lots creates a racially hostile environment impinging on their rights. As one parent of a high school student complained in an email this past November, students are repeatedly exposed to Confederate battle flag iconography on student attire and on phone cases in the hallways and at athletic events, and both this parent and his student view these displays in the school as unwelcoming symbols of intolerance, racial hatred and white supremacy.”
The legal document continues to lay out recent racial issues locally, including the school system’s inability to attract and retain minority educators, and CCPS’ reputation outside the county, citing a quote from Guthrie in 2016 where he said he was told by some people that Carroll County has a reputation for being a place where nonwhite individuals don’t want to be after work hours end.
The document also cites former BOE President Jim Doolan’s prior comments on finding Ku Klux Klan materials on his vehicle during his years as a teacher, members of a Confederate color guard turning their backs during a speech honoring a black Civil War soldier and the bomb threat called in last spring when students wore shirts promoting diversity at a “We the People” protest.
“Despite the sincere good-faith efforts of many Carroll County residents, the lingering vestiges of racial intolerance still exist as displayed on student clothing and on vehicles parked on student lots,” the document reads. “Based upon these events and displays both past and present, school officials can reasonable forecast that the continued display of Confederate battle flag symbols on school grounds will both materially interfere with school operations and collide with the rights of students, faculty, and staff who not only merely disagree with the perceived message behind the symbols but are so vehemently and negatively impacted by their presences at school that a hostile educational environment is created adversely impacting their ability to learn and teach.”
This decision comes after the issue was brought up at the January school board meeting, at which a number of parents and community members spoke asking for the flag to be banned from schools.
At the Jan. 10 meeting, the Board of Education reached to a consensus to have the school system’s legal team look into whether CCPS can legally ban what is commonly referred to as the Confederate flag — which consists of white stars on a blue X-shaped cross over a red backdrop and is technically the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy — as a part of the dress code.
This is not the first time CCPS has taken up the discussion about whether to ban the flag on shirts and other confederate imagery.
Guthrie previously told the Times that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capital in the summer of 2015 opened the opportunity to look at student dress code. Haley’s decision came after Dylann Roof, who had posed with Confederate imagery on his website promoting white supremacy, shot and killed nine African-Americans in a historic black church in the state.
At the time CCPS felt it could not legally ban the Confederate flag in the dress code, and so imagery of the flag fell under the “disruption rule.” CCPS updated the code in summer 2015, shortly after the shooting, and included symbols of hate and intolerance.
After a woman died this past summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a car rammed into a crowd of protesters at a white supremacist rally, which is believed to be the “largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade — including neo-Nazis, skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to The Baltimore Sun, there was again a move to remove statues and other symbols of the Confederacy which rekindled the conversation, Guthrie said in a previous interview.