ROCKY MOUNT — The Franklin County School Board has debated for four months about revising its updated dress code to explicitly ban displays of the Confederate flag.
On Monday, after another impassioned and testy round of comments from the public and board members, the school board ultimately voted 7 to 1 adopt the new dress code without adding any language that bans the flag. Member-at-large Penny Blue, the board’s only African American member, was the sole no vote.
Before that vote happened, the board considered an amendment to the dress code update, proposed by Blue. In a section of the code generally forbidding clothing that depicts hate speech or imagery, her revisions would have added, “Examples include the Confederate flag. This list is not intended to be all inclusive.” The amendment failed when the board vote split 4 to 4.
Blue first raised the issue at the board’s Oct. 14 meeting. The board was preparing to make changes to its dress code, specifically loosening restrictions on hemlines, as parents had complained of being unable to find clothes in stores that were in compliance. She argued that the Confederate flag was a symbol of white supremacy and hate that needed to be barred from county schools.
Other members balked, saying that while they personally detested the flag, they believed an explicit ban could violate students’ rights to freedom of speech. Schools Superintendent Mark Church has cited a 2000 court case in Kentucky as the legal precedent that most applies to Franklin County. In that case, because the school could not show a history of disruptive incidents resulting from displays of the Confederate flag, the school’s attempt to institute a ban failed.
On Monday, Blue continued her argument that the school system needed to make a stand on this issue for the sake of education.
“You have to have your head in the sand if you don’t think it is reasonable to believe wearing the Confederate flag would cause disruption in the learning school environment,” she said, quoting from a federal court decision, Hardwick v. Heyward.
“The slippery slope that I believe we are going down is that if we are too general, and every teacher and every principal has such subjectivity, and we’re not consistent, that’s the slippery slope,” Blue said.
Five speakers who provided public comment, all African Americans who reside in Franklin County, backed up Blue’s position. “Should your pleasure outweigh my pain?” asked Union Hall resident Ruby Penn, suggesting the board was using the First Amendment as an excuse for inaction. “Black people have been on a slippery slope since we were brought to America.”
“This is all the black people want, is respect,” Rocky Mount resident Sherman Witcher said. “The flag is disrespectful. I don’t know why you don’t get that. Lincoln got it.”
The public comment also included some pushback.
Patrick Cosmato, husband of board vice chairwoman and Boone representative Donna Cosmato, stirred gasps from some in the audience. “Nothing needs to be banned. If you go down that road, it’s a slippery slope. I would urge those who want to walk around on this earth spring-loaded in the offended position, please just get over it.”