EAST MONTPELIER — Contraceptives soon could be available to students at U-32 Middle and High School. And while the Confederate flag may not be welcome there, the Washington Central School Board said it isn’t ready to enact a blanket ban on “hate symbols.”
On a night when board members met with local lawmakers and got a crash course on proficiency-based learning, a pair of policies proposed by separate student groups provoked protracted discussions that produced different results.
During its Wednesday meeting, the board approved the first of two required readings for a policy that would make condoms, dental dams and lubricants available to sexually active students at the 7-12 school. However, members struggled with a separate proposal designed to rid the East Montpelier campus of an ill-defined list of “hate symbols” in any “non-educational context … regardless of the stated intent of the individual displaying (the) symbol.”
While board members said they appreciated the passion and supported the intent of the diverse group of students requesting the latter policy, they also acknowledged it was potentially problematic. Constitutional questions aside — and there are constitutional questions — some wondered whether the school’s existing policy on harassment, hazing and bullying isn’t sufficient.
Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate said he believe it is.
“Our position is that we already can investigate these symbols as part of our current policy and that if it is causing a disruption or a disturbance … then certainly we can take action,” he explained.
That said, Dellinger-Pate acknowledged members of the student group “Seeking Social Justice” have pressed for a ban that — with an educational exception — would make“… the display, transmission or dissemination by any means … of any hate symbols” an automatic violation of the school’s harassment policy.
The proposal recently was pitched to a policy committee that entered the meeting looking for direction and has sparked an ongoing dialogue among students, staff and parents who have expressed fundamentally different opinions about whether it should be adopted.
That conversation continued as board members heard from a veteran teacher wary of a proposal he fears would do more harm than good and from their student representatives who argued the time for action is now.
Alden Byrd, who teaches English at the school, said he supported the proposed policy’s goal of creating a climate that is “free of hatred and harassment,” but argued the suggested ban was “legally dubious and very much counterproductive.”
Byrd questioned whether isolated instances of students wearing clothing that features the Confederate flag represented the kind of “material or substantial disruption” that would empower the board to limit the First Amendment rights of students based on the controlling court case.
Regardless of the answer to that question, Byrd said he has become increasingly convinced that the best way to alter student behavior is through education, communication and relationships not by enacting rules that might alienate them.
“Censorship is not the answer for this,” Byrd said, arguing the alternative might take more time, but would produce better and more lasting results.
Townes DeGroot, one of two student representatives on the board, said he isn’t willing to wait.
“Changing people minds is a goal, but it’s not as important a goal as making people feel safe,” DeGroot said, noting students already are prohibited from wearing clothing that makes references to drugs and alcohol and extending that to hate symbols isn’t a significant stretch.
However, it does beg a question the policy committee posed when the proposal was presented by students and its chairman, School Director Chris McVeigh, reiterated Wednesday night.
“Who would decide what a hate symbol is?” McVeigh asked, noting that list is potentially very long and deciding where to draw the line might not be as simple as it sounded.
DeGroot conceded it was a “gray area” as was the question of intent.
Dellinger-Pate disagreed on the latter point, noting the inclusion of the words “regardless of intent” in the draft policy was potentially problematic and opened the door to student complaints that could border on the bizarre.
“I’ve had students in my office who feel threatened because the Black Lives Matter Flag flies over the school,” he said. “‘Regardless of intent,’ if a student doesn’t feel comfortable coming into the school because of that, this policy might tell me that the flag has to come down.”
Dellinger-Pate’s admittedly extreme hypothetical provoked pushback from School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet, who described it as “perverse.”
“I think we can distinguish between the actual … effects of a Black Lives Matter flag and the actual real life effects of the Confederate flag,” he said.
During the discussion, board members sought to better understand the scope of the problem and the ability to address through existing policy.
“Are there symbols that would cause a student to face consequences or discipline now, or is it the position of the school a child could walk into U-32 wearing a swastika?” Eno-Van Fleet asked at one point.
DeGroot replied one once did, though, Dellinger-Pate said the incident wasn’t brought to the attention of school administrators at the time.
According to Dellinger-Pate, conversations with one student who had been wearing clothing that included the Confederate flag prompted a change of heart, though another recently has started regularly wearing the symbol.
“Part of that is in protest to the potential ban,” he said, explaining the student’s decision.
Dellinger-Pate said he sympathized with the board’s dilemma, while expressing skepticism the requested ban was the answer.
“I don’t know that this policy affords us any additional tools in terms of dealing with this issue, which is what a policy should do,” he said.
Board members generally agreed stressing the importance of education and expressing apprehension about the policy as proposed.
“I don’t hear any support for this policy around the table,” Eno-Van Fleet said, suggesting that balking at a ban shouldn’t preclude the board from making a strong statement.
“I hope it is the sense of this board that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol and it has no place in our schools,” he said. “Whether or not there is a First Amendment issue, or a ‘gray area’ issue or a political issue I hope that is the sense of this board.”
Board members agreed the policy should take a fresh look at the harassment policy to determine whether it might be modified in response to the concerns raised by students.
The sooner the better, according to DeGroot, who expressed a sense of urgency.
“Every week we don’t address it is a week when students are harmed,” he said.
Discussion of a the policy that would make contraceptives accessible to students at the school was comparatively tame, though health teacher Meg Falby described it as “a fairly politically charged topic.”
Due to the lateness of the hour, members of the student group that proposed the policy left the meeting before the discussion began, leaving Falby to urge the board to advance a measure that she argued would make students who are sexually active safer.
If there are concerns, none were raised by board members who approved the first reading of the policy and were invited to forward any suggestions to the committee before it is scheduled for second reading and adoption.