DATE: February 28, 2019
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Officer
Superintendent Dr. Matthew Haas Says Symbols Associated With White Supremacy & Hate Groups Will Not Be Permitted in Schools
(ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Virginia) – Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Matthew Haas, said today that symbols, lettering or insignia of organizations or groups associated with white supremacy, racial hatred, or violence are not permitted in schools. This includes, but it is not limited to, such representations that support or promote the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederacy, Neo-Nazism, or other hate groups.
The superintendent said he is taking this step to meet his operational responsibility as outlined in the school division’s student conduct policy. The policy says, “Each student has the right to expect an educational environment in which he/she can strive to achieve his/her intellectual potential. The most important student responsibility is to avoid disruptive conduct that infringes on the rights of others. Students, parents, and school personnel are expected to cooperate in efforts to ensure a learning environment free of disruption.”
The policy also states, “Students are expected to dress appropriately for a K-12 educational environment. Any clothing that interferes with or disrupts the educational environment is unacceptable.”
“I have been deeply concerned about incidents of racial tension in our schools and the impact that the 2017 Unite the Right Rally continues to have in our community. The violence that was ruthlessly visited upon so many during that event, including Albemarle County Public Schools students who were injured, was accompanied by Confederate and other divisive symbols and slogans of hatred,” said Dr. Haas.
Dr. Haas cited recent professional opinions that support his decision to keep the learning environment free of symbols that could and have caused substantial disruption.
A February 14 opinion from the school division’s School Health Advisory Board said, “Exposure to symbols that are perceived as discriminatory or threatening in the school setting can affect the physical health of students as well as their ability to learn.”
The advisory board, whose members include several medical and health professionals, called for the removal of white supremacist imagery from schools, emphasizing that Confederate symbols “have been adopted by overtly racist and violent groups.”
What’s especially compelling about the School Health Advisory Board’s opinion, Dr. Haas said, is the fact that students are often in close proximity to one another throughout the school day. “That increases the likelihood that such symbolism will be disruptive to the learning process because those offended by this symbolism cannot simply decide to leave the classroom or the building,” he said.
A recently concluded legal review of court rulings by the School Board Attorney confirms that school divisions can take proactive steps to prevent disruptions to the learning environment and need not wait for a disturbance to occur.
Most notably, in a decision in the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, the jurisdiction of which includes Charlottesville City and Albemarle County, the court ruled in Hardwick v. Heywood that a South Carolina school district did not violate the free speech rights of a student when it prevented her from wearing clothing that depicted the Confederate flag. The court found that the flag could excite racial tensions and create a substantial disruption in the school environment.
In a separate opinion (Defoe v. Spiva), in the 6th Circuit, the court recognized that a “plainly reasonable interpretation of a Confederate flag tee shirt or jacket is one of racial hostility or contempt regardless of the subjective intent of the wearer.”
Writing in the University of California at Davis Law Review, R. George Wright, an acknowledged free speech expert and a University of Indiana law professor, said, “Free speech rights under the First Amendment must give way to the compelling interest that schools and other students have in ensuring an educational experience free of significant distraction.”
Dr. Haas said that, as a former high school principal and deputy superintendent, he has seen firsthand the distraction that the wearing of Confederate imagery has had in schools. “I have had many opportunities to counsel students who have worn clothing with these symbols,” he said. “I used those occasions to talk with students who willingly agreed not to wear clothing with Confederate insignia once they understood how offensive and threatening that clothing was to their peers,” he said.
Counseling will be the focus of how school administrators will keep the learning environment safe and free from disruption or the threat of disruption, the superintendent said.
“I value how important it is to protect the free speech rights of our students. That’s why I am not proposing a change in our viewpoint-neutral dress code,” Dr. Haas said. “At the same time, every student is entitled to an educational environment in which they can confidently and safely achieve their highest potential. Any behavior is unacceptable if it interferes with the rights of others,” he added.
“I appreciate that many in our community hold thoughtful, passionate and different points of view around the issue of the Confederacy,” Dr. Haas said. “At the same time, I agree with our School Health Advisory Board that racist and violent groups have adopted Confederate and Nazi symbols that have and could in the future engender or exacerbate racial discord,” he said.
The superintendent concluded that the school division has an inviolable responsibility to provide all students with a safe and nurturing learning environment, one that is conducive to every student’s healthy academic, social and emotional development.