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Proposal To Ban Hate Symbols In Public Schools Statewide Has Roots In Rural Baltimore County

J Holsey Photography

The Maryland General Assembly is considering legislation that would ban hate symbols like swastikas, Confederate flags and nooses at public schools statewide.

The proposal was born in a rural, mostly White area of Baltimore County.

Vita Shats, 18 and a senior at Hereford High School in the rural, northern part of the county, recently told the House Ways and Means Committee that swastikas were being carved in the boys’ bathrooms last year.

“Students thought this was funny,” Shats said. “As a Jewish student, I found it terrifying this is normal where I go to school. This symbol represents millions dead and that is somehow funny? There needs to be an end to this.”

Shats said it’s also routine to see Hereford students with Confederate flags on their clothes and decals on the backs of their cars. She says her Black classmates are outnumbered.

Barbara Willette, a retired Hereford High teacher, told legislators she saw the Confederate flag routinely as well. And it continues in virtual learning. She said a fellow teacher has a student who has two Confederate flags hanging behind him when he is in online classes.

“The symbols of slavery and the holocaust multiply when unchecked by those who can do something,” Willette said.

Willette and Shats are part of a group called Black Lives Matter in the Hereford Zone. Most of its members are White, including Del. Michele Guyton, a Democrat who is proposing the statewide ban on hate symbols in schools.

Guyton, whose three sons are Hereford High graduates, said they “have through the years expressed a lot of these problems to me and brought it to my attention that it was really upsetting to them to see these symbols.”

She said hate symbols are more than a Hereford High problem. Her legislation would require school boards statewide to adopt a policy by the end of the year that would prohibit the display of hate symbols.

She specifically mentions swastikas, Confederate flags and nooses in the bill, but local school systems can include others.

“But rather than try to specifically include and come up with every possible intimidating symbol that anyone will ever be able to think up in the history of Maryland, because this is statutory it has to have some flexibility to change,” Guyton said.

Several school systems in Maryland, including Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties, already have a ban on hate symbols. Most, including Baltimore County, do not.

But in Baltimore County, that may be about to change.

Last summer, Guyton asked the county school board to adopt a hate symbol policy.

After researching the matter, the school system’s attorney, Margaret-Ann Howie, recommended last month the board adopt a hate symbols ban.

Howie said that while students have first amendment rights to free speech, the school board has the legal authority to ban speech that interferes with the work of the school or impinges on the rights of other students.

“Messages by their very nature that are designed to intimidate or to express hatred could be considered disruptive and, in my opinion, can be suppressed,” Howie told the board.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law agrees. But he adds the issue is not settled law because it hasn’t come before the Supreme Court.

“There’s been a Supreme Court case that protects the right of students to wear an armband to protest the Vietnam War,” Chemerinsky said. “There has been Supreme Court cases about the ability to punish students for indecent speech at school assemblies. But the idea of schools prohibiting hate speech hasn’t come to the Supreme Court.”

If hate symbols are banned in schools in the county and statewide, teachers could still use them in classrooms if they are part of instruction.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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