Confederate flag banned in Northampton schools

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2021 6:02:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Confederate flag is officially banned from Northampton schools, with the exception of its use in educational contexts.

At its meeting Thursday night, the School Committee voted unanimously to ban the Confederate flag in school and to refer a related, broader policy to a subcommittee for review.

More than 100 people attended the Zoom meeting, which also included discussion of other topics. During public comment, Mareatha Wallace, an educational support professional at JFK Middle School, urged the committee to pass a ban, and go further.

“While banning the Confederate flag is a necessary part, we still have a long way to go to become a safe and equitable school system for all,” Wallace said. “I request that the School Committee take a small step while committing to everyone that we can all do better by ourselves and our students.”

The meeting came after a rally Feb. 24 outside JFK Middle School in response to a recently created racist Facebook page that used the Confederate flag as its profile photo. One post included a video that middle school Principal Desmond Caldwell made last month in response to students bringing images of the Confederate flag to school. The post on the Facebook page stated “we will not be intimidated by this anti-American tyrant.”

During public comment, Wallace told the committee, “as important as this issue is, the use of the Confederate flag in this manner is a symptom of a larger problem that is present here in our schools: the issue of persistent institutional and personal racism perpetrated by policies and individual actions of our administration, faculty, staff and students in the happy valley. While I would love to say there is only a race issue here, I cannot. There is homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, ableism, as well as an uptick in violence towards Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in our school.”

Heather Brown, vice-president of the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE), expressed support for Caldwell and his video message in her public comment.

“I want to state here for the public record NASE encourages that this ban include other hate symbols,” Brown said. “We have to take firm action now, not to speak but to show that our schools will be a place that educators and students can teach and learn in a welcoming and affirming environment.” Echoing Wallace, she said, “Banning symbols and images is one step that we take. This is a small part of what we have to do towards our goal of becoming an anti-racist community.”

Jose Adastra, a city resident, agreed the committee should go further than just banning the Confederate flag.

“Right after this, they are going to be like, let’s do the blue line now. Let’s do the don’t tread on me … They are going to rally behind those. It’s going to be the same attitude.” Adastra added, “We’re going to be back here every time they change the symbol.”

Others at the meeting spoke in favor of the policy, as did many who spoke during public comment at the School Committee’s previous meeting late last month.

The approved policy bans the Confederate flag “given the documented history of substantial disruption to the learning environment in the Northampton Public Schools caused by displays of the Confederate Flag, including the negative impact to the health and safety of students who have a right to equally access the learning environment and have credibly reported feeling unsafe when it is displayed, and the ongoing disruption to the learning environment that is reasonably anticipated to continue by its display.”

The policy would allow the image in approved learning materials and in classroom learning supervised by an educator.

Committee discussion

At the meeting, attorney Layla Taylor spoke about the legality of a policy banning the Confederate flag and took members’ questions.

Appeals courts in the U.S., Taylor said, “what they typically have found is that when there is a history in a school of a disruption — an actual disruption, right — then they will entertain Confederate flag bans.”

There’s also a state statue related, she said, quoting a law that reads: “The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools ... of the Commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.”

She commented, “There’s been an actual disruption in the school — absolutely. The last few months at JFK have shown that.”

Northampton is not the first school in the area to take the step. Easthampton voted in 2017 to ban the Confederate flag in school.

Taylor addressed calls for a policy broader than just banning the Confederate flag. “I think you’d need to do a little bit more fact development in your Policy and Rules Committee,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s out of the question.”

After Taylor’s presentation, Ward 5 member Dina Levi made a motion to approve the policy to ban the Confederate flag and refer a broader potential policy to a subcommittee for study. That proposed policy, Levi said, “would prohibit writing symbols and images associated with intimidation, violence or violent groups which advocate racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice, such as items that promote intolerance or confrontation — including the Confederate flag or swastika — or that denigrate others on the basis of a protected class.”

At-large member Susan Voss agreed with packaging both motions together.

“I think it really sends a message if you put these two things together, that the committee is taking seriously the entire issue and acknowledging it’s not going to be fixed tonight but we have to address it as holistically as possible, and we’re taking the first step we’re capable of taking tonight,” Voss said.

At-large member Roni Gold suggested an amendment to the proposed policy on the Confederate flag that was accepted. He suggested adding “annually at the beginning of each school year and intermittently throughout the year, all schools will inform and educate all students about this policy and the reasoning for it.”

Members voted unanimously to approve the policy banning the Confederate flag and to take up the broader proposal in a subcommittee.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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