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Virginia school divisions navigate complexity of Confederate flag displays

A student approaches a Virginia public high school that has the Confederate flag painted on its front doors.
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A version of the Confederate battle flag greets students and faculty every day at Hurley High School in Buchanan County.

Public schools have been treading a fine line when it comes to freedom of speech and historic symbols.

Two Virginia school districts have taken two different approaches when dealing with Confederate imagery. In Franklin County, the school board voted to explicitly ban the Confederate flag from the student dress code in 2020. And over in Buchanan County, the school board still flies the flag to greet students every day.

Penny Blue, a former Franklin County School Board member, grew up in Franklin and attended FCPS. She remembered what it was like seeing symbols of the Confederacy.

“I know what it is to be in a ‘white school system’ and to be a Black child, and not be seen. And therefore, I'm always striving to make certain that children feel seen,” said Blue, who was the only African American elected to the school board between 2013 and 2021.

Blue said working to get the Confederate flag banned from the student dress code was no easy task. Countywide, her advocacy sparked conversations about history, heritage and race.

“If you drive around Franklin County, you will see the Confederate flag [is] flown prominently,” Blue said. “We still have a Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn in Franklin County.”

During a January 2020 Franklin County School Board meeting, members voted to allow students to continue wearing clothing or carrying bags depicting the Confederate flag to school. WSLS reported that during the meeting, members expressed concerns that banning the flag would infringe on students’ freedom of speech.

“But freedom and speech in the school system, you restrict students — what they can do — all the time. It's a totally different story. For instance, I can't tell you what to wear in the public square, but I can tell you what to wear in the public school system,” Blue said.

Blue said it took the nation witnessing the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, followed by racial reckoning and the removal of Confederate statues, to change the minds of people in Franklin County.

The current dress code explicitly prohibits the Confederate flag: “Clothing may not state, imply or depict hate speech/imagery targeting groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other protected classification. The Confederate Flag is prohibited.”

Nicholas Simopoulos, a Richmond-based attorney who practices education law, told VPM News that school boards act as legislative bodies with the ability to adopt policies.

“It seemed that [the Franklin County School Board] had evidence that the speech in question — the Confederate flag symbol — would actually cause disruption, would actually reasonably interfere with students' rights to be free, for example, from discrimination and to learn in the school environment,” Simopoulos said. “Schools are not required to wait for something bad to happen in order to permissively regulate speech.”

School divisions throughout Virginia voted to remove Confederate names, mascots and imagery from their institutions after Floyd’s 2020 murder.

But one Buchanan County public school is still displaying the flag and has retained its "Rebel" mascot name.

Tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains, Hurley High School students can’t escape the presence of the Confederate flag. A USA Today article from 2015 detailed how the flag — specifically, a version of the Confederate battle flag — is displayed on the basketball court, in gathering spaces and on athletic gear.

VPM News made repeated requests for interviews or a statement to discuss the Hurley Rebels’ flag display with Principal Greg Tester and Buchanan Schools Superintendent Sherry Fletcher. They went unanswered.

Simopoulos said while the environments in Franklin and Buchanan counties are similar, the key difference is that what’s at play is government speech, as opposed to private speech.

“Not only is the speech supported and endorsed by the principal, but appears to be endorsed by administrators, which I assume would be the school board itself,” Simopoulos said. “And that's as a legislative body, they can make that decision — however repugnant —somebody might actually find it to be.”

In the 2015 USA Today story, former Principal Pam Tester defended the flag’s prominence saying, “it means heritage not hate” and “you won’t find a single person in Hurley who thinks different.” Greg Tester, who was football coach at the time, said, “I respect other points of view” and “We don’t mean any disrespect at all.”

VPM News repeatedly attempted to contact a phone number listed for Pam Tester; there was no response. The USA Today article noted that Pam and Greg Tester are related.

No recent complaints over the flags displayed at Hurley High School have been publicly discussed with the Buchanan County School Board.

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