Students face expulsion under strict speech policy adopted by Va. school board

VIRGINIA — Using racial epithets — even in the spiritof camaraderie — may lead to the expulsion of students in PrinceWilliam County Public Schools beginning next fall.

The school board voted 7-1 on May 22 to adopt the change inthe district’s code of conduct after an uproar over studentssinging along to a popular song that included the lyric "nigger"during a school basketball game.

"We want to make sure that students know that that’s notacceptable," said Clarice Torian, Prince William’s directorof student services who helped draft the addendum. "Whatwe’re trying to do is to specify or make clear what we currentlyhave in the code of behavior."

Student media will not be affected by the district’s vote. Katie Flanagan, news editor of Woodbridge High School’spaper The Valkyrie, said the paper’s current policy alreadylimits the use of racial terms.

Torian said the purpose of the policy is to prevent misunderstandingsthat can cause fights. Before the revision, the policy asked that"[a]ll persons and groups within the school are to be treatedwith dignity and respect" and banned discrimination by action,gesture, statement, dress or symbol. Violations resulted in correctiveaction including expulsion.

The two-sentence addendum maintains that "[t]he use ofethnic and/or cultural references, or other language that is reasonablyunderstood to disparage, incite, humiliate, or degrade an individual,a race, or a group regardless of the intent will not be toleratedin school. This includes language that originated from the lyricsof popular music that may be used in casual conversation."

Superintendent Edward Kelly said the school did not look forprecedent in adapting the new policy. "There is precedentin saying that language and behavior that is racial in natureor is sexist or of a type that puts down people of different culturesis not tolerated."

While students and administrators will have to wait to seethe policy’s effects until fall, concern has already been raisedabout use of racial terms in casual conversation.

School board member Steve Keen tallied the lone dissentingvote in disapproval of sanctions because they punish studentsregardless of intent. Flanagan, a junior, also sees the possibilityfor confusion because of everyday use of such offensive terms.

"I definitely think this will cause problems," shesaid. "A lot of people just use words and don’t think aboutwhat they actually mean."