CLIFTON PARK — Shenendehowa Central School District student activists on Tuesday night continued to call on school district officials to explicitly ban the Confederate flag, while the Niskayuna school board moved closer to doing just that at a nearby meeting.
Shenendehowa students and recent graduates joined other Capital Region activists outside of a Tuesday night school board meeting to press district officials to adopt a policy specifically banning the Confederate flag from school grounds – which officials say is already barred – and to also pursue a litany of new diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Meanwhile, the Niskayuna Central School District Board of Education on Tuesday night briefly discussed a proposed anti-racist policy, asserting the district “unequivocally affirms that Black lives matter” and committing the district to an expansive “anti-racist approach” to education.
The proposed policy prohibits “racist symbols that are disruptive to the learning environment,” specifically highlighting Confederate imagery, Nazi swastikas and Ku Klux Klan symbols. The proposed policy was listed on the board’s agenda for further consideration, but the board did not act to adopt it.
Board member Sarah Rogerson, a member of the board’s policy committee, said the policy was developed using examples of similar policies around the state and could break new ground in New York. She said board members planned to continue fine-tuning the policy language, working to ensure it would be enforceable and withstand any challenges.
“We want to make sure it’s specific and narrow – not narrow in scope – so that administrators can actually enforce it,” Rogerson said.
Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. suggested the district’s attorney review the policy too, but he said he was confident a policy aiming to protect students in their schools would pass muster.
Responding to a public comment criticizing the proposed policy – the board was asked if “the district is going to teach white children they are inherently bad because they are white” – board President Howard Schlossberg said if the district asserted that “Black lives matter,” it would not be an endorsement of the specific organization, Black Lives Matter.
“I do not think the district should unequivocally align itself behind any specific organization,” Schlossberg said. “The district does support the proposition that Black lives matter … No, we will not be teaching white children they are inherently bad.”
In Shenendehowa, district officials have said the Confederate flag is banned under a policy that bars students from wearing or displaying “culturally derogatory, offensive or divisive symbols” or items that “denigrate others because of race.”
But student organizers and recent graduates have argued district officials should go further and specify a clear ban of the Confederate flag.
“It just doesn’t make sense, it really just doesn’t make sense. It’s clear they have the power to do it,” said T.J. Sangaré, a recent Shenendehowa graduate who co-authored a series of demands with his sister.
Sangaré, speaking earlier in the day Tuesday, said Niskayuna’s proposed policy was evidence that Shenendehowa could do something similar.
“The point is you can do it now,” he said. “Why wait? Why not just set the precedent right now and stand with your students? Especially when other districts they see as similar are making these moves.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Shenendehowa board members expressed an interest in pursuing new policies focused on diversity and inclusion but also urged patience in taking the time to ensure any policy changes were enforceable.
Board member Naomi Hoffman said the district shouldn’t allow potential First Amendment concerns about limiting student expression to prevent them from making a clear statement that display of the Confederate flag has no place in Shenendehowa.
“Now, it’s keeping our district from committing to change long overdue,” Hoffman said said of legal concerns. “Without these changes we are complicit.”
Board President Deanna Stephenson said she had started discussing the topic with the New York State School Boards Association and a local civil liberties union, and board member Bob Pressly outlined an approach to advance discussion on different policy ideas over the course of upcoming board meetings. Stephenson said everyone needs to be open to learning as part of the discussion.
“I need to learn, we all need to learn, this is a learning project,” Stephenson said. “None of us are there yet.”
Superintendent Oliver Robinson said he wants to approach policy changes in a way to advance systemic change — not just respond to one-off demands — noting that he can tell someone not to do something but that he wants to “not only change behavior but increase knowledge.”