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Confederate flag, swastikas, other hate symbols banned from Howard County school system property

The Confederate flag, along with the swastika and other symbols “promoting hatred,” are now banned from Howard County Public School System property, which includes representations on clothing, vehicles and at school-related events, according to an updated policy.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the ban Oct. 8 in a modification to the school system’s bullying, harassment and intimidation policy, as well as in the student code of conduct.

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“For far too long, words and symbols that demean, harass, promote hatred or show intolerance of religious groups and racial minorities have not been considered as a form of bullying. They are,” school board Chairperson Mavis Ellis said. “Those words and symbols have been strung over our school system without folks even thinking it’s a form of bullying.”

The addition to the policy — officially entitled Policy 1060 Bullying, Cyberbullying, Harassment or Intimidation — prohibits images or symbols that promote “hatred, intimidation or harassment,” and it includes the Confederate flag and swastika as examples.

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“The display,” the policy addition reads, “of symbols, images, language, materials or items that demean an identifiable person or group or are reasonably perceived as promoting hatred, intimidation or harassment, such as but not limited to swastikas and Confederate flags, are prohibited on school property or at school-related activities and are subject to the standards of this policy.”

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said the modification is important because the school system’s policies should “evolve with new realities.”

“The new language in Policy 1060 ... is an example of staff and the board remaining vigilant to tending to the welfare of our students,” Martirano wrote in an email.

Theo Cramer, one of the school system’s community superintendents, led the policy committee through the modification. He said the addition to the policy, which is similar to language added to Carroll County Public Schools’ dress code in 2018, is important because the school system’s nearly 59,000 students should “not be forced to confront hate in our schools.”

“I think first and foremost this will immediately let students know that images and symbols like the Confederate flag and swastikas and other images that are widely regarded as being hateful ... will no longer be allowed,” Cramer said. “We’ve had instances of hurtful images and symbols and language in our schools targeting certain students and student groups. We think the change will better enable schools to protect all students.”

Cramer said punishment depends on the level of the offense according to the student code of conduct, which ranges from smaller penalties all the way up to expulsion for repeat, egregious offenses.

“We want to work with our students and families,” Cramer said. “We don’t want to have a punitive culture, but there are levels of consequences.”

Cramer said Confederate flags and swastikas were examples of hateful symbols that are banned. No other symbols the school system deems hateful will be permitted, but Cramer said he doesn’t believe it’s feasible to complete a comprehensive list of banned symbols.

“If we were ever to create such a list, and we missed a symbol, we would be concerned that an offender of the policy could look at the policy and find a symbol that was not identified in the policy,” Cramer said.

While Cramer said hateful symbols like the Confederate flag and swastikas were not previously banned, he said other policies previously provided administrators the flexibility to determine whether an action or appearance of a symbol was a violation of the student code of conduct.

This addition to the policy, however, removes any ambiguity about hateful symbols, especially the Confederate flag and swastikas.

“The policy makes it clear and explicit,” Cramer said. “Even if you’re not intending to do harm, you can no longer have that symbol, or any other hate symbol.”

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For example, under the previous policy, if a student was displaying a hateful symbol, he or she could be punished. However, if a student was wearing a T-shirt with the Confederate flag on it and not violating any other rules, he or she would not have been reprimanded.

While the policy modification doesn’t immediately follow a specific incident, multiple instances of racism and the portrayal of hateful symbols by students have occurred at Howard County schools in recent years.

In 2014, a Glenelg High School student was disciplined for displaying a Confederate flag as a fan during a football game at River Hill High School. The student displayed the flag in the back of the stands in which Glenelg fans were sitting. The flag was removed by a Glenelg school officially shortly after it was displayed.

Five days after that incident, two Glenelg students then went to school with Confederate flags draped over their shoulders. The school system’s spokesperson at the time, Rebecca Amani-Dove, would not comment on if or what disciplinary actions were taken against the three students who displayed the flag.

According to the code of conduct in 2014, students could be disciplined for “behavior or dress that interferes with the learning environment” or “the safe and orderly environment” of the school.

“Carrying a flag, in and of itself, is not a violation of the code of conduct,” Amani-Dove said in 2014.

Under the current policy, however, there will be no choice other than to discipline students if they bring Confederate flags on school grounds. While not all instances of hate symbol displays in the past have led to discipline, Cramer said that doesn’t mean schools weren’t confronting hate.

“We were confronting it,” Cramer said. “We have been responding to incidents of hate. But I think this formalizes and allows us to better respond. This fortifies it — codifies it — with very explicit language for both students and families to let them know that even if you aren’t using them in a hateful way, you can no longer have any such symbols on our premises or on your clothing or other paraphernalia.”

Two years after the incidents at Glenelg, more than 150 students from Mt. Hebron High School walked out of classes to protest a racist video released on social media depicting a white student calling Black people an “inferior race.”

In 2018, four Glenelg students were arrested and charged with hate crimes after police said they painted swastikas and racial slurs — one of which was directed at the school’s Black principal, David Burton — on campus sidewalks, walls and parking lot.

The four — Tyler Curtiss, Matthew Lipp, Joshua Shaffer and Seth Taylorwere indicted in July 2018 by the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office. They were sentenced between March and April 2019, all receiving various consecutive weekend jail sentences at the Howard County Detention Center.

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This past summer, amid protests across the country following the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky — including one in Columbia and another in the western part of the county — more than 400 former and current Howard County students signed a petition and wrote testimonies that said racism is a problem in the school system.

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Last month, the Board of Education approved the school system’s first equity policy, which Martirano said would serve as a blueprint for equity, diversity and accountability.

“I think with this, coupled with the work we’ve done on our equity policy, we’re working to build environments that intentionally focus on fostering empathy and developing relationships and upholding dignity for everyone,” Cramer said.

“It’s difficult to do that when we were permitting symbols that are deemed to be hate symbols by large numbers of our students and families, like the Confederate flag and swastikas. This allows us to actualize some of the language we have in the equity policy.”

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