Visalia Unified School District officials have set aside a plan to update their dress code in an effort to curb hate speech after the ACLU, ACT for Women and Girls and students asked for a plan to address the root causes of racism in schools.
The school board was set to vote on a change in dress code policy Tuesday night after a student in September was labeled by other students to be a white supremacist for wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt.
But the ACLU addressed the board in a joint statement with students and ACT for Women and Girls saying that although the change was well intended, the change wouldn’t effectively address racial tensions on campuses.
“Instead of banning protected speech, we strongly urge the district to take the affirmative steps to address the actual harm caused by the racially harmful environment that has been building over many years,” the ACLU said in a letter to the district.
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The 15-year-old student in September who wore the sweatshirt was stopped by a group of girls who questioned him. Later a photo of him circulated on social media that was captioned “flex #whitepower.”
She feels targeted through the dress code.
Morgan McKinney Sanchez
The school district will take up the issue again early next year, said Lucia Vazquez, the school board president.
Abre’ Conner, an attorney with the ACLU, said she and the students were glad the board took their concerns into consideration. “We’re really happy the school district decided to stand with students and recognize they don’t necessarily have all the answers to fix racial tensions, but they’re willing to work with students in the community to address that.”
The district also said it would create a student advisory committee to help come up with “thoughtful change,” Conner said.
District officials proposed the dress code change to help staff and administrators determine whether students are exercising free speech or using a symbol for bullying or harassment.
While the women who penned the letter – Conner, Brianna Smith, a Visalia student and Gina Rodriguez, program director for ACT for Women and Girls – agree with the belief that the Confederate flag “is a symbol of hate and intolerance that celebrates a war fought to keep Black people in bondage and terrorizes the descendants of the enslaved,” they also said the courts have made it clear people have the right to display the flag and other hateful symbols.
Banning “hate group” symbols from clothing will give school staff more power to discipline students of color, which are the students the policy is intended to protect, the letter says.
A Visalia high school student, Morgan McKinney Sanchez, said in the letter she “feels targeted through the dress code.”
Instead, the district should do more to target the root cause of racism and bigotry, the letter says, by creating a space for small group dialogue regarding racial tensions at school; ensuring proper and authentic history lessons regarding the confederacy and historical racism; and creating a safe space for student conversations in black student unions and other groups that are authentic and encouraged by supportive faculty.
It is far more important for a school to create a positive learning environment.
Student Destiny Campos
The letter noted racial hostility in the district is growing worse. “Black students are called the n-word, Mexican students are told to ‘go back to Mexico’ and white students regularly say ‘white power’ to students of color,” Smith said.
“While it is important for individuals to embrace their heritage, it is far more important for a school to create a positive learning environment,” another student, Destiny Campos, wrote in the letter.