Racism and discrimination remain an endemic problem in Warren County and its public schools, say some residents and students’ parents.
A recent incident at Skyline High School involving a student carrying a Confederate flag and shouting racial slurs sparked anger and worry among people in the community. The incident came soon after the Warren County School Board adopted new policies meant to protect students from discrimination and harassment.
Stevi Hubbard, the mother of a student who attends Skyline High School, spoke by phone Thursday about a series of related incidents that occurred at the school last week. A student at the school on Aug. 26 displayed a pro-Donald Trump flag depicting the former U.S. president and walked with it through a hallway, Hubbard said. The student shouted racial slurs at other people who confronted him about the display, she said. No one with the school administration punished the student, Hubbard noted.
The student carried a Confederate flag through a hall on the following day, sparking more anger from onlookers, at whom he then shouted racial slurs, Hubbard said. Administrators this time told the student he could not bring the flag into the school, she said. To her knowledge, administrators did not discipline the student.
“My problem with it was, you know, I don’t think it should’ve been allowed to escalate that far,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard, who is white, said her child is bi-racial.
Racially charged incidents have occurred in the school system before, Hubbard explained. She criticized past administrations for taking a soft-handed approach to handling racism and discrimination in the school system.
“We’ve had, like, a real push-and-pull type of thing with the school where they don’t, you know, exactly call it out for what it is when it happens and their stance is that they don’t want to become more defensive, ” Hubbard said. “But myself and many other parents feel like that’s why it keeps continuing to happen because of their unwillingness call it what it is and act like there’s two sides to the thing.
“It’s pretty depressing,” Hubbard went on to say. “I’ve been arguing with the school for four years now.”
Hubbard recalled that, four years ago, one or more students wrote racial slurs and other racially charged, offensive language on the school walls. She said some students sing a song that contains a racial slur in the hall and teachers don’t react to it.
“The kids are just hurt and understandably so and, you know, don’t feel like the administration is doing what it needs to do to protect them,” Hubbard said.
But Hubbard also expressed hope that Superintendent Christopher Ballenger would take action to help curtail the problem. Hubbard said she’s trying to encourage her daughter by telling her that the county school system has a “new team of players” in the administration, including Ballenger.
The school division’s non-discrimination policy meant to protect students lacks teeth to allow teachers to act, Hubbard said.
“I don’t know whose fault really it is that not much is being done,” Hubbard said. “But we have to get to a place where this stuff is, like, completely unacceptable.”
County schools officials have not provided details about the incident, stating only that the division does not tolerate behavior that interferes with the learning environment.
Director of Personnel and Communication Shane Goodwin provided the following comment in an email in response to a request for more information about the incident: “I am not able to provide specific details about the incident or student without violating (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). Our desire is to bring the community together by listening to their concerns and acting in the best interest of our students and families. We are grateful for the words and actions of our Board (Wednesday night) and for their work to make our schools a place where students learn, grow, connect and thrive.”
School Board members heard from several residents who spoke during the public comment period on discrimination and racial tensions within the system and the community.
Gene Kilby read a statement by Kristen Iden at the board meeting in which she questioned the division enforcement of its policies concerning inappropriate dress and other visual items such as flags. Iden stated in the letter that a student can bring a Care Bear flag to school, according to an official. But the flag would be removed once it is used to bully anyone, Iden states, citing the school official. Iden went on to state that the Confederate flag remains a symbol of hate to many students. In her statement, Iden urged the board to review the division’s policies to maintain a safe learning environment that does not embrace hate.
Kilby also read a statement in which he spoke of the laws prohibiting discrimination in the school division.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Catherine R. Bower read the following statement at the beginning of meeting but provided no details:
“The Warren County School Board would like to take this time to address the community concerning an event that occurred in one of our schools and has caused a disruption within our schools and in our community,” Bower said. “The School Board ensures a safe learning environment for all students, staff and community members.
“We ensure an inclusive learning environment where we value each individual,” Bower read. “Warren County Public Schools does not discriminate and has no tolerance for discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, color, national origin, disability, religion, ancestry, age, marital status, pregnancy, child birth or related medical conditions, military status, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law.”
Bower went on to state: “This commitment is present in all of our policies and practices concerning staff, students, educational programs and services and individual entities with which the board does business. We are to ensure that students can learn in an environment that is orderly, supportive and respectful. When that orderly environment is disrupted, school administration will address all situations promptly and privately.
Students freedom of expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution cannot interfere with the school environment, Bower said.
We value individuality and respect, self-expression,” Bower stated. “However, we will not allow this to interfere with the school environment and/or the rights of our students.”