by Kenneth Fine
Citing a lack of protections for LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, the Orange County School Board balked on officially adding new language to the school system’s dress code that would ban the Confederate flag, swastikas, and other racially intimidating symbols from county schools. The measure, which would prohibit students from wearing clothing and accessories that are “indecent, profane, or racially intimidating,” passed its first reading June 12. Advocates saw Monday's final vote as merely a formality.
But board member Donna Coffey said she thought the new language failed to address protections for LGBTQ and disabled students and motioned for the matter to be sent back to committee for additional debate. Three board members—Brenda Stephens, Matthew Roberts, and Tony McKnight—ultimately voted to approve the new language as written. But a majority of the board, four members, tipped the decision toward Coffey’s recommendation.
The proposed dress code revision marks the culmination of a months-long effort spearheaded by members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, a grassroots organization made up of more than two hundred students, teachers, and other Orange County residents that began when the mother of an African-American high school student noticed an abundance of Confederate flags on the Orange High School campus.
While members of the HFSC say they are sympathetic to the plights of LGBTQ and disabled students, at least one member, Stacey Sewall, believes Coffey's move was a thoughtful attempt to create a rift between HFSC and the LGBTQ community.
“This felt like it may have been designed to divide our communities,” she told the INDY.
Numerous calls to Seth Stephens, a spokesman for Orange County Public Schools, have not been returned, but in a different move Sewall believes was made to suppress groups like HFSC, the board is also entertaining revising its policy for public comment at school board meetings. Among the changes being discussed are placing more stringent time limits on speakers and requiring that all people scheduled to speak on a given matter be lumped together so their point can be made by a lone representative instead of being hammered home individually.
“While our legal team has let us know this is technically legal, we also want to hold them accountable for trying to silence the voices of the public,” Sewall says.