Lawrence school district leaders steer away from outright ban of Confederate flag

photo by: Mike Yoder

Free State High School

After a student petition gathered hundreds of signatures supporting a district policy banning the display of the Confederate flag, Lawrence school district leaders told students leading the effort that such a ban isn’t likely. Instead, members of the school board’s policy advisory committee said they would focus on making existing discrimination polices more encompassing.

“We need to take a stab at crafting the language of a policy that broadens our language to include symbols,” school board President Vanessa Sanburn told the students at a meeting Friday. “…It is written in a way that allows us to (tell students they can’t bring a flag to school), but to make it more explicit is a goal that we have and that we would feel comfortable recommending to the entire board.”

Sanburn is on the policy advisory committee along with board member Shannon Kimball and Dave Cunningham, director of human resources and legal services for the district. The committee met with the three Free State High School students — Abena Peasah, Seamus Ryan and Maame Britwum — who wrote and submitted the student petition to the board.

The petition followed an incident in January in which a Free State student flew a full-sized Confederate flag from his pickup truck that he parked on school grounds. Some students were upset by the flag, which flew from its makeshift flagpole for about a week before school administration told the student he could no longer display it because it was disrupting the learning environment. Part of the reason for requesting a ban was so that if another student were to bring a flag, another disruption wouldn’t have to occur before that student was told to take it down.

“It disrupted classes in classes where you wouldn’t expect it to be discussed, like foreign language classes and math classes,” Peasah said of the presence of the flag on school grounds. “It was kind of taking over and students were even talking about walking out, so I would say it definitely disturbed our environment and endangered our education.”

Sanburn said that including the display of hateful or discriminatory symbols in the discrimination policy could assure district teachers and administrators that they need not wait for disruptions to occur should a student display a hateful or discriminatory symbol, such as a Confederate flag, swastika or other symbol of white supremacy.

“I think as far as enforcement is concerned, we can view the Confederate flag as a hate message and ask for removal based on that,” Sanburn said.

Committee members told the students that broadening the district’s existing discrimination and harassment policy to include symbols could accomplish the same goal as an outright ban of the flag, and also minimize the risk of the district facing litigation for violating students’ freedom of expression. The discrimination policy currently bans written, verbal or physical discrimination and harassment. Cunningham said the committee could also consider changes to other policies, such as the bullying policy, to better address racial issues.

“I think there is some balances in there that the board might be able to strike to look at multiple policies,” he said.

The advisory committee will meet again May 3 to continue its discussion and begin drafting a policy.