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Confederate flag ban signals new era for county schools

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of July 30, 2020)

The school district last week banned display of the confederate flag on campus and held its first Equity in Action conference as part of the new superintendent’s crusade to boost the performance of African-American students.

In addition to banning the confederate flag at school events and instituting more inclusive policies, Superintendent David Moore said the district will update disciplinary procedures to minimize out-of-school suspensions and coach unruly students to behave.

“I promise you I will make the difficult decisions to stand in a righteous place with equity,” Moore said during the conference at Storm Grove Middle School.

At the Friday conference, two African-American high school students and a recent graduate told an audience of more than 100 attendees they felt excluded from academic programs and extracurricular activities.

The students also described feeling fear and confusion when white Vero Beach High School students displayed the confederate flag on their attire on campus or on their vehicles with impunity.

The school district has been under a federal desegregation order since 1967 and was instructed by a federal judge in January to intensify efforts to integrate and bring greater equity to the schools.

One of Moore’s first tasks after assuming office in December was updating the district’s African-American Achievement Plan for the 2019-2020 school year.

“I told the School Board when I was hired: I’m not afraid to make the difficult decisions, I’m not afraid to be fired,” Moore said. “I’m here to tell you: ‘Damn the torpedoes, but this work is going to move from words on papers to actions and improvements of realities in schools.’”

Two African-American students and a recent graduate described how the school system marginalized them and their peers, while teachers and classmates subjected them to daily slights and insults.

“Why is it that when I walk into my AP and honors classes, only two or three other kids look like me?” asked Rylie Walker, a senior at Vero Beach High.

“When I look at all of my high school teachers, I only had three that look like me,” Walker said.

Christopher Peterson said his parents had to fight to get him into gifted classes in elementary school and he wound up graduating from Vero Beach High this spring with honors, a merit scholarship and membership in the national honor society.

“In my sophomore year, Vero Beach High School made the news for permitting the confederate flag on campus,” Peterson said. “When I saw the confederate flag draped over students with pride, I was literally speechless. I thought it was illegal.

“We were outraged as black students to see a flag that represents white supremacy and oppression of our black people.”

The School Board voted unanimously last week to approve a new Code of Student Conduct Handbook for the new school year prohibiting students from displaying the confederate flag in any way, including clothing, jewelry, posters, stickers, flyers, buttons, writings, images or symbols.

The handbook identified the confederate flag and Nazi swastika as hate symbols that will be limited to educational materials.

This time around, there was no push back against the confederate flag ban, unlike 2017 and 2018 when the former superintendent and school board majority didn’t consider it offensive, said School Board Chairwoman Laura Zorc.

“I was raised in the Deep South ... under a mindset the confederate flag was a Southern pride thing,” Zorc said during the July 21 board meeting. “I apologize. [After] learning how hurtful that is to our African-American students and other students, I apologize.”

School Board Vice Chairwoman Mara Schiff, one of three new members who joined the board in 2018, said “it’s been a long time coming and it is long overdue. I am proud we are now doing it.”

School Board member Teri Barenborg, who also joined the board in 2018, said she supported the confederate flag ban to protect children who feel threatened by it.

“It’s a no-brainer because children – and that’s who we are responsible for – feel intimidated,” Barenborg said. “When a child feels intimidated by something that’s when we need to act. So, I had no problem making this decision.”