The Confederate flag found no quarter with the Niskayuna school board Monday night as its members formed a quick consensus for banning its presence on school grounds.
However, the board hasn't decided just what form the ban should take yet – with some members suggesting a small addition to existing policies would suffice while others are arguing for a fuller policy of its own – and kicked the issue to the board’s policy committee to work on before the board’s August or September meeting.
In a letter signed by nearly 75 teachers and staff, Niskayuna educators called on the board to ban the flag and other Confederate symbols from school grounds, arguing the flag’s presence in or around schools disrupts the educational environment. The demand comes as the latest national reckoning over the flag and its legacy surges across the country: NASCAR and the United States Marine Corps both banned the presence of the flag in recent weeks, and the state of Mississippi recently became the nation's last state to remove a Confederate flag emblem from its state flag.
In their first chance to respond to the letter, Niskayuna board members unanimously condemned Confederate imagery and agreed to prohibit students and others from displaying it on school grounds.
“In times like these, it’s important to be unequivocal about things that are not tolerated in our children’s learning environments,” said Sarah Rogerson, the newest member to the school board.
Board member Brian Backus said he didn’t think it was necessary to develop a new policy just to ban the flag imagery, noting a ban could be made clear in existing policies or the district code of conduct.
“I don’t see the need for a new policy just for this,” Backus said, noting the symbol wasn’t worthy of its own policy. “We are calling it out and giving it attention that the symbol doesn’t deserve in one spot.”
But some other board members indicated an interest in a new policy that would explicitly ban the flag symbol – and potentially other hateful images like the swastika. Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. likened the flag to the swastika and said he thinks any similarly hateful symbols should be barred in Niskayuna schools.
“I would believe that any symbols that would interfere with the educational process should be banned from the Niskayuna Central School District, any symbol that will make a single student feel unsafe,” Tangorra said during Monday’s meeting.
Tangorra also said the district’s efforts have to go further and called on educators in the district to call out biased or racist behavior and microagressions on the part of students and other adults. He said a broader shift in the district’s culture was necessary to ensure “social justice” for all students.
“I’m much more supportive of the adults in the organization standing up to those colleagues and students… to ensure this type of behavior isn’t tolerated,” he said. “We have to also agree it’s symbolic in nature until we change, aggressively change the culture, until all adults feel empowered, until all students feel there are multiple adults they can go to, this will do little to achieve social justice.”
The discussion does not appear to be only academic: teachers and students alike attest to seeing other students display the Confederate symbol on clothes, backpacks and cars.
Selwa Khan, a rising high school senior and student board representative, said if current policies already prohibited the flag, then the policies were not being enforced, noting she had “100 percent” seen the flag displayed by other students.
“I shouldn’t see it at all, and I see it,” she said of the Confederate symbols. “So if that (prohibition) language is there, we need to do something to enforce it; if that language is not there, we need to put it there and enforce it.”
The board members also argued being clear about a ban would empower teachers and administrators to clearly enforce expectations. And the board’s student representatives said enforcement should be used as an opportunity to educate students about the history of the flag and other hateful symbols.
“If there is a way to make it as loud and clear as possible, I think that would be the best solution,” said high school junior Maya Gerstenbluth, serving as a new student representative.