POWHATAN – The Powhatan County School Board will soon be wading into a debate that is raging across the nation as they consider requests to ban the Confederate flag in Powhatan County Public Schools.
While not an official scheduled topic of the board’s meeting on Tuesday, July 14, several members of the public wrote in asking the members to ban people from wearing or displaying what many referred to as a symbol of division and racism.
Locally, the debate was sparked when Powhatan High School’s Diverse Hands at Work student group sent a letter to Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, asking that the division ban the Confederate flag from being displayed anywhere or worn by anyone on PCPS property.
During the first public comment period, six people spoke backing the student group and asking the board to take action on the issue.
During a discussion of the Student Rights and Responsibilities 2020-2021 document, the board started to broach the topic but then decided to make it an official item on a future meeting agenda. At least two board members, Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, and Valarie Ayers, District 3, initially seemed to support the request for a ban. But before discussion really got started, the board decided to have a presentation of information on the topic at its July 28 meeting and then have an attorney present at its Aug. 11 meeting to answer more questions and potentially take action on the issue.
The letter from Diverse Hands at Work described the flag as a symbol of “racism, discrimination, divisiveness, and hate” and said the students do not feel safe at school when it is being displayed or worn.
“We believe that the confederate flag is a reminder of the pain of those who inherited the cultural memory and present effects of slavery in this county. We are asking you to formally ban the Confederate flag from being displayed or worn anywhere or on anyone on property belonging to Powhatan County Public Schools,” according to the letter, which was signed by five student members of the club.
The letter went on to talk about the flag’s history, which many consider part of their heritage but which, to others, represents a war fought in part because of the belief in the ideal that “one human being should be allowed to own another human being, all because of the color of their skin.”
The flag also represents a distraction to the learning environment, which the school board has a right to restrict, and constitutes “disruptive behavior” under Virginia Code, the letter said. The division’s Student Rights and Responsibilities document talks about clothing that is disruptive, discriminatory, demeaning to others, or creates a hostile environment in the schools, but administrators do not interpret the Confederate flag in that way, which is why a specific ban is needed, the letter continued.
During the July 14 meeting’s first public comment period, letters from six people asking for the flag to be banned were read by Jones. Chiara Hoyt talked about the decades-long debate about the flag that is “coming into sharp focus within light of recent national events.” She urged the board to make a “strong statement in favor of equality, safety, and love for our Black brothers and sisters.
“As a predominantly white county, it is easy for us to turn a blind eye, to issues of racial injustice that do not affect the majority of our population. I hope, however, that we are entering into a new era here in Powhatan – one in which we speak up for those who are vulnerable and who have suffered in the margins for too long,” Holt wrote.
Tanya Torrijos acknowledged that while the request might be met with resistance from people who don’t like being told what they can and cannot do, in this case, “it is important for ALL students to feel welcome and accepted. The confederate flag is a sign of a time in which everyone was certainly not treated equally.”
Amy McVaugh described the discrimination her grandchildren have experienced because of the color of their skin and the pain and humiliation it caused. Asking for the school board to ban the Confederate flag, she praised any action PCPS can take to “discourage racist behavior demonstrates your commitment to treating all children as equals.”
Other business handled at the meeting included:
* The school board voted unanimously to adopt a revised budget based on a reduction in county transfers.
On May 14, the board of supervisors had approved 90 percent of the county portion of the school board budget with the understanding they would work with the school board to determine how to handle the other 10 percent, or about $2.33 million.
On June 29, the supervisors decided in a 3-1-1 vote to amend the FY 2021 School Operating Budget and approve all but $188,000 of the county transfer.
Jones explained to the school board on July 14 that the schools would make up the $188,000 mainly through savings. An unfilled bookkeeper position will save the division $68,092. The other $119,908 will come from reductions in equipment purchases, travel expenses, small maintenance repairs, and locking in the division’s fuel and heating oil costs for next year at a much reduced rate.