NEWTON — A Newton Community High School alumnus this week implored the Jasper County school board to ban the Confederate battle emblem on school grounds.
Mitch Bierman, a 2017 NCHS graduate, read to the school board a letter from fellow alum, Josie Angel, who could not attend the meeting. Bierman and Angel are part of a group of young Newton natives pushing for the banishment of the symbol that many perceive as racist.
Angel's letter noted that organizations like NASCAR and even the United States military have banned the flag at their events and on their property. She wrote that other schools have banned the flag on school grounds, and Mississippi has removed the symbol from its state flag.
"Nationwide, it is becoming a pattern that the Confederate flag is no longer a symbol we want to be associated with, yet, our school is still OK with the association," Angel wrote in a letter read to the board by Bierman.
"Board members, I say this with the hope that I can open your eyes and not out of disrespect. Not a single one of you will ever know what it's like to be a person of color. You will not understand what it is like to person of color going through the school system here in Jasper County," the letter continued. "What you do know is that a group of ambitious young adults — including two persons of color — have come to you with their concerns and feelings toward the flag and racism within our school district. Two persons of color that once went through your school district are telling you that this flag is unacceptable and intimidating."
Angel noted in her letter that a petition on www.change.org, titled Confederate Flags in JCCU1, has garnered over 1,000 signatures in support of banning the flag. Angel urged the board to think of the future for students in the district's lower grade level, especially those who are persons of color.
In a later interview with the Daily News, Angel said while attending Newton schools, she was often on the receiving end of racists jokes and comments. She said those jokes would at times come from people she considered her friends.
"I didn't stand up because when you're the only one, it's hard to. I had one teacher intervene when a racial joke was heard. I'm thankful for that," Angel said. "As a person of color, in general, seeing the Confederate flag parading on school grounds makes me uncomfortable. Students, I don't think, undertsand the true symbolism behind the flag."
Angel added that she felt the Confederate flag is not something students should be "waving with pride" in front of other students, including those of color.
Angel said there are not many students of color in the district but hoped banning the flag could make it more inclusive.
"Our sole purpose behind the ban is wanting future (and) previous students of color to not have to feel the intimidation the flag brings. We don't want them to feel silenced by their peers," Angel said.
Fellow alum Ariel Richards, who is half Black, said she had similar experiences as Angel as early as elementary school.
Richards said in junior high, fellow students openly said the "N-word" around her, and in high school, students would often display the Confederate flag on their trucks, clothing and more.
"At the time, I never said anything because I was afraid of backlash and didn’t know if anyone would stand behind me," Richards said in an interview separate from the meeting. "Now that we have this group, I am more comfortable speaking out and I want to do so that other kids of color that go through JCCU don’t have to encounter a symbol that represents people owning their ancestors at school."
Also in a later interview, Bierman said pushing for the ban is important to him because he said he refuses to believe the community he grew up in would allow a symbol of slavery, hate and oppression to be present on school grounds.
Bierman said the board's decision on whether or not to ban the flag would affect his choice to come back to the area after graduating college.
"I've always wanted to come back to the area later in life, but if wee cannot ban something hateful, such as banning the symbol of the people who believed that they could own humans as property, I don't know if this area is for me," Bierman said.
At the July board meeting, Bierman presented the board with dress code guidelines from West Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, as well as two scholarly papers written by a doctor of history at North Western and a doctor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College.
The scholarly papers outlined the origins of the Confederate flag, along with ethical and moral reasons it should be banned from school grounds.
Bierman said that Jasper County schools have a similar policy to that of West Vigo, but the West Vigo policy takes its policy a step further, specifically banning the flag.
"They actually have ... a portion that creates an effective ban of the confederate flag. This is actually very similar to our current policy. Our policy currently has something very similar to what they have, but our policy doesn't include the example clause they have included, which mentions the confederate flag, Bierman said.
"Our policy is sufficient enough in creating a safe learning environment free of racism in our school, but it doesn't go the extra step in preventing those hateful images, being the confederate flag, on school grounds. I think including an example clause to create an effective ban of the confederate flag would be sufficient in creating a better environment in the schools."
According to a summary of minutes from the board's June 15 meeting, Bierman and Angel attended and also asked for the ban on the flag on school grounds.
District Superintendent Andrew Johnson read the following statement:
"It is stated policy of the board of education to ensure that all students receive equal educational opportunities without regard to color, race, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, ancestry, age physical or mental disability, homeless status or immigration status. Accordingly, the board of education will not tolerate discrimination in any form based on the color of a student’s skin or, for that matter, on the basis of any protected category."
The board took no action on the matter at the June meeting, nor during the July meeting. Board members made no comment following Bierman's presentation.
Bierman concluded his presentation by telling the board the nation is experiencing historical civil unrest over racism, and now is the time to act.
"The confederate flag ... was used by confederates — people that sought to fight the country to protect their right to own other people — and this is racist and a hateful ideology. They used the confederate flag as a symbol of their group of people. By association, the flag obviously represents that group of people," Bierman said.
"I hope you guys understand why we want this and why it's important. I think this is a really pivotal time in our nation's history and climate right now in terms of civil unrest. We just think this is a very important time to make our stance in Jasper County that we don't allow racists things, hateful things to be allowed in our school district. I think this would make a really big difference in our schools."
Bierman and Angel are part of a socially-minded group of Newton alumni who got together after speaking out on social media about racist experiences and the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. Richards was the one who started the change.org petition.