School board issues policy on racist talk

Beginning next school year, any Prince William County student who uses discriminating language — including racial epithets — in any context could be expelled.

The county School Board voted 7-1 on Wednesday night approving the amended Code of Conduct. The decision was prompted by complaints from parents and school administrators after students sang along with a popular song played during a recent school basketball game that included “n—–r” in the lyrics.

“This is something that we have to be able to stop, School Board Chairwoman Lucy S. Beauchamp said. “A great deal of popular songs should be outlawed.”

“The Code of Behavior is to set the standards for students. [This] simply clarifies the use of language,” said Clarice Torian, director of Student Services, who helped draft the addition to the rule.

While the school system revises the Code of Behavior each year, this particular item had School Board members in disagreement.

School Board member and Woodbridge representative Steven Keen, who was the lone vote opposing the amended Code of Conduct, proposed to omit the changes because students sometimes use the term in a non-offensive manner. The wording of the new policy, regardless of intent,” indicates that even when students use the word in a friendly manner they would be disciplined, he said.

“A teacher walks down the hall and sees a group of black kids using the n-word for camaraderie,” Keen said. “Ninety percent of the time I hear it is [when] one African American [says it] to another.”

Regardless, Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said such language could ignite fights in schools.

The School Board voted 5-3 against Keen’s proposal to omit the change. Keen, along with School Board members Don Richardson of Gainesville and Stephen R. Wassenburg of Occoquan voted to exclude the phrase from the rule. Members Joan R. Ferlazzo of Dumfries; Beauchamp; John David Allen of Coles; Lyle G. Beefelt of Brentsville, and Mary Williams of Neabsco voted against Keen’s proposal.

“I have no problem with [adding the ‘regardless of intent’ language],” said Ferlazzo, who voted against Keen’s proposal. “Children do not think [the words] are offensive. I can’t tell you how many fights start because of that.”

Prior to the vote, Associate Superintendent W. Ashby Birchette addressed the School Board on the need to curb the language, even though it is used in popular music and among black students. “If we ignore it then kids tend to think it’s acceptable,” he said.

Birchette said he has been in contact with officials with Black Entertainment Television, a cable channel that airs music videos that feature racial and sexist slurs, asking them to stop playing music with inappropriate language.

Staff writer Louise Cannon can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 123.

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