When most people reminisce about high school, they might focus on prom or graduation — rites of passage in a young person’s life.
However, for Flannery Supplee, of Monkton, high school also conjures up thoughts of hate speech and hate symbols.
The 2018 graduate of Hereford High School in Parkton said she often would see hate symbols in the school.
She saw Confederate flags displayed on students’ binders, and one time she recalled hearing a student scream “white power” in the hallway. .
“It is a startling image to see and it made me angry,” she said of the flags. “It is not a good thing to see in your high school.”
In response to the presence of the symbols in their school, students at Hereford High School drafted a petition to the Board of Education to ban hate symbols in Baltimore County Public Schools.
Signed by current and former students, parents and other community members, the petition has collected 1,120 signatures toward a goal of 1,500 and has gained the support of Del. Michele Guyton, a Democrat who represents District 42B in the northwestern part of Baltimore County, including the Hereford Zone.
Guyton, who has three boys in BCPS, said she has seen the offensive symbols in schools across the county. She said she decided to bring the issue before the board after being approached by Black Lives Matter in Hereford Zone, or BLMinHZ, a local activist group fighting against racial injustice in the community and beyond.
On June 17, she sent a letter to the board addressing the issue, and on June 25, she brought it up in a virtual town hall on educational equity with BCPS Superintendent Darryl L. Williams.
Students have the right to freedom of speech, religion and the right to assemble peacefully, but speech and behavior that are disruptive can be prohibited, according to the 2019-2020 BCPS Student Handbook.
Additionally, students have the right to symbolic forms of expression to the extent that the symbols do not substantially disrupt school activities.
Two years ago, a similar issue was raised in Carroll County Public Schools, where the board decided to ban hate symbols in the form of Confederate flags and swastikas. The student handbook since has been updated accordingly.
Although the BCPS handbook prohibits disruptive forms of expression, the policy does not address hate symbols, Guyton said.
“This should be a strong BCPS policy,” she said. “I was concerned that a student of color or a teacher had to make those complaints. With all the energy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought it was really the time to push that.”
The effort has received bipartisan attention, gaining the support of state Sen. Christopher West, a Republican who represents District 42.
West, who signed the letter sent to the board by Guyton, said he is in favor of a ban.
“I have no patience with discrimination of any kind,” he said. “Hate symbols have no place in our society and no place in our schools.”
A ban is not meant to encroach on students’ right to freedom of expression, but to end the perpetuation of hate and violence, he said.
“I strongly support freedom of speech, but symbols of hate in public schools are a bad thing, and we should not have them,” he said.
During a virtual meeting July 14, the issue was brought before the school board, and members unanimously supported a motion introduced by student board member Josh Muhumuza, a rising senior at Dundalk High School, directing the superintendent to investigate the potential prohibition of hate speech and hate symbols and report back by Jan. 19.
“I always had this in the back of my mind, but I never knew where to begin,” Muhumuza said of a ban. He said he had heard of hate symbols in schools around the county and learned about the Hereford petition from Guyton.
“A couple of weeks leading up to my first board meeting, [Guyton] reached out about her efforts to push it,” Muhumuza said. “Things just amplified in the weeks leading up to the first board meeting, and I thought now was the time to do it.”
Prior to the meeting, members of the community inundated the board with emails regarding the ban, he said.
Members of the school board did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Muhumuza said he thinks it’s important for the ban to have the support of the predominantly white Hereford Zone.
“If we did not have this broad support, I don’t think the board would have taken it as a serious issue,” he said. “Broad support helps the cause and [creates] concrete change.”
Supplee, who signed the petition and is involved with BLMinHZ, said the presence of hate symbols makes students feel less safe in school.
“Those symbols directly impact people,” she said. “It’s awful imagery and I hope [BCPS] gets rid of it.”