NISKAYUNA — Dozens of Niskayuna educators have called on the school board to ban all images of the Confederate flag from clothing, personal belongings and anything else brought onto school district property.
In an open letter signed by nearly 75 district employees, the educators argue the flag and what it represents – a legacy of slavery and racial oppression – should not be allowed in Niskayuna schools.
“This flag is not an American flag but the flag of traitorous individuals so committed to the institution of slavery that they chose to secede from the United States rather than free those held in bondage,” the educators wrote in the letter.
The letter, titled “It’s Time Niskayuna,” is posted on the school board’s Monday meeting agenda as a discussion item for the board, giving board members a chance to respond and direct administrators if they want to take further action.
Niskayuna High School social studies teacher Peter Melito, who has worked in the district for around 20 years and has helped spearhead efforts in recent years to get the Confederate flag banned in the district, cited instances in which the flag on a student’s shirt or car had caused confrontations with other students.
Teachers in recent years have asked the flag be banned, he said, but were told that the district’s lawyers said banning the flag would raise free speech issues. Citing a landmark Supreme Court case dealing with free speech in public schools, Melito argued the district should be safe banning the symbol on the grounds that it has the potential to cause a “material disruption” at school. He said the flag and Confederate symbols have already caused disruptions within the school and would likely continue to do so.
“With the current situation of the climate of the country as a whole, you can take a look at that flag in the whole and conclude it will cause material disruption in the school,” Melito said.
Melito, who is married to a Black woman and has multiracial children, said the flag’s history is rooted in a history of slavery, segregation and racism. And he argued it’s hard to make a case for the flag representing “heritage” in New York, the northern state that lost the most soldiers fighting on behalf of the Union during the Civil War.
“We are trying to be very progressive in some of our policies and this is low-hanging fruit,” Melito said in an interview Friday. “This is not a political issue, this is a right-or-wrong issue, and I would be very disappointed if we did not adopt a policy that prohibits Confederate commemoration in the district.”
The letter was signed by a majority of the faculty and staff of the high school, Melito said. Melito and other teachers started gathering signatures for the letter in the final week of the school year and recently submitted it to the school board.
While Melito also noted major organizations across the country have recently banned the flag, including NASCAR and the United States Marine Corps, and argued now was the time for the school district to do the same.
“This flag has been used to terrorize African Americans in our nation since Reconstruction. It appeared at lynchings, cross burnings, Ku Klux Klan parades, and, today, is carried by hate groups throughout the country,” Niskayuna educators wrote in the letter. “To ask our students of color, knowing the history of this flag, to sit in classrooms with students who are displaying Confederate flags is unacceptable. It promotes inequality and exclusion rather than inclusion and the acceptance of all people in our school community.”