Bedford County Schools officials are investigating an incident shared on social media last week showing Jefferson Forest High School students displaying Confederate flags on campus.
Jefferson Forest administrators emailed parents that the incident occurred during the school’s Spirit Week. Monday was “Country vs. Country Club” day at the school and students were allowed to dress accordingly.
The high school published the list of dress-up days, which included “Bikers vs. Surfers, NFL vs. NBA and Marvel vs. DC” on the school’s website. The schedule was published online as part of the daily morning announcements.
“During a class change, a few of our students quickly displayed some images, photographed themselves, and then posted those images on social media,” administrators wrote in the unsigned statement Wednesday.
“Though our school and student population was and has not been disrupted by the posting, we have received considerable criticism of the post from parents and others in the community about the theme of the post and what they believe it implies about our school and community.”
The photographs, which were initially shared Monday on Snapchat before being uploaded to Facebook, show students displaying Confederate battle flags in different areas across campus. One photo shows a student draped in the flag, captioned with a defense of the banner as a symbol of “history and heritage.”
The images were shared on Facebook by Roanoke resident Lyman Connor, a parent of a Jefferson Forest High School student. In an interview, Connor said he was outraged by the images and shared the photos to raise awareness about racism in the school.
The Confederate battle flag “is a symbol of hatred to the black community, to the Hispanic community and to the Jewish community,” he said. “It is, and that can’t be changed.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Connor’s post had been shared more than 1,500 times on Facebook.
Administrators pushed back against claims of racism, writing in the statement that “what has been alleged by many is simply not true and in no way reflects Jefferson Forest High School and the high standards we hold for our students and staff.”
“Unfortunately, the truth often gets in the way of a good story, especially one being shared on social media, so we do anticipate that local media will soon be airing stories about this incident. Although we hope that our school and its values are accurately portrayed, we cannot control what others report about our school and community, and we have made every effort to communicate to the media what exactly happened on Monday.”Bedford County Schools Spokesperson Ryan Edwards echoed Jefferson Forest administrators and promised school officials “will continue to work with our entire school community to foster a climate where everyone feels welcome.”
Edwards and the administration’s statements did not specify the actions school officials took in response to the incident and did not include an apology.
The controversy has erupted amid a statewide reckoning on racism. Gov. Ralph Northam has resisted calls for his resignation after a medical school yearbook surfaced last week showing a man dressed in Klu Klux Klan robes standing next to a man in blackface. Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted to wearing blackface while a college party.
In recent years, school systems across the state have been forced to address the presence of Confederate imagery on campus.
In 2015, administrators at a Montgomery County High School suspended two dozen students after they arrived at the school carrying Confederate flags and wearing clothing clad with Confederate imagery.
A Montgomery County Schools spokesperson told The Roanoke Times at the time the Confederate flag was banned from campus after it was used to intimidate minority students in the 2001-02 school year.
According to Edwards, the Bedford County School system has not placed any prohibitions on Confederate items “that do not cause an interruption to the instructional day.”
Patti Kese, the president of the Jefferson Forest parent teacher association and a part-time employee at the school, said the uproar unleashed on social media Tuesday does not reflect the welcoming atmosphere at the school.
“No school is perfect,” Kese said. “You’re not going to find a perfect school, you’re not going to find a perfect office, you’re not going to find anything perfect—racially. The students, depending on how you look at it, made a poor decision. It wasn’t instigated by the administration and it wasn’t done with the administration’s knowledge.”
Kese said Jefferson Forest administrators spent much of the Wednesdayspeaking with concerned parents. She said administrators first became aware of the incident after Connor’s post bounced around social mediaTuesday.
Connor said he plans to call on the school board to hold a public dialogue to address racism in the county’s schools.
“I want the school board to be made aware of this,” he said. “I want the department of education to be made aware of this. I want the pertinent lawmakers to be aware of this. To be honest with you, with respect to the principal, I want her to step down. I want her to resign.”
Tiffany Forest, the parent of a 10th grader at Jefferson Forest, said the incident had the potential to make minority students feel uncomfortable. In an interview, she called on school officials to issue an apology.
“Schools should be a safe and an inviting place,” she said. “No child should be made to feel less of a person. If students are allowed to display the Confederate flag, what will they do next?”