Yorktown High School administrators asked African-American students who had put up a #Black Lives Matter (BLM) banner to take it down on Thursday, Feb. 8, according to William Lomax, assistant principal at Yorktown High School. Lomax said some students and parents had complained about the banner, saying it was racist.
According to Lomax, Yorktown’s “Sister Circle,” a group of African-American young women, wanted to put up a BLM banner in the high school’s atrium for Black History Month. He said the students were told to hang the sign after school and refused to follow directions. “As the atrium is a popular place and must be shared," Lomax said, “the girls were asked to wait.” The issue “became heated for the young ladies, who insisted on putting it up early, noting that their time had come and they were tired of waiting,” Lomax said. He said, “A number of students reacted to the banner. Some students made negative remarks, some parents called or wrote the school board, and some unacceptable comments were made in classrooms. The sign became disruptive very early and a decision was made to remove the banner for the good order of the school. The presence of the banner was highlighted on WMAL radio station at noon. Two hours later, it was removed.”
A similar incident took place the previous week when teachers at Yorktown put up a poster with such axioms as “facts are not political, justice is for all, diversity strengthens us, women's rights are human rights, science is real, and we are all immigrants, and kindness is everything,” which were perceived as political by some students. The matter was referred to the school board, which supported the teachers’ right to keep the poster up. WMAL and Fox News highlighted the poster’s presence at YHS.
Lomax said, “Yorktown has to be a learning environment where all students feel safe and welcomed. Our black students were allowed to celebrate Black History Month so they were not denied that opportunity. Many things have been said about what happened yesterday. Some of those things were true and many are not. I even had one student say that Steve Bannon had been in the building last week, which was not true.”
According to several YHS students, as the students were hanging the banner, some students at the school harassed them, using racial slurs. The sign, which otherwise has a positive message that Black lives matter “as much as other lives matter,” created controversy and disruption because some students believed the sign was political, or misunderstood its meaning.
Barbara Kanninen, the school board member who was interviewed by WMAL host Larry O’Connor about the teachers’ poster, said that while the school board supported the teachers’ right to put up posters, students have limited First Amendment rights when it comes to activity which is perceived as “disruptive:” “There are things the school board can’t define for the school, and one of those is ‘what is disruptive’.” She acknowledged that students who made racist comments to the students putting up the banner, or in classrooms, needed to be identified, and that this had not yet been done.
Students like Jordan Dixon, Taylor Harrison, and Chloe Merriweather, who felt threatened by the poster being taken down and the racial slurs they were hearing, said the administration told students “they were “working on it.”
The Yorktown Parent Teacher Association (PTA) held a meeting Wednesday night, Feb. 15 to discuss the recent controversy over signs. Dr. Ray Pasi, Yorktown principal, told the group he “had never before seen a post election season like this, and the school is searching for a way forward to deal with this post-election environment.”
Kanninen said the PTA meeting was positive, with many parents looking for ways to pitch in and help. She left the meeting thinking this was definitely a small group of students who were responsible for the racist comments, not the majority of YHS students.
Yorktown students did not wait for the school to do something about the situation: the Yorktown Democrats held a seminar called “Forum for Respect” after school on Feb. 15 which allowed students to voice their views and show each other respect.
Kanninen noted the Arlington County Public Schools’ professional development training last Friday was focused on just this kind of issue and teachers received training on what to do in a situation where a student makes a comment directed against an ethnic or racial minority.