Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane stepped into the racially tense situation at Fairfax High School yesterday, pledging "swift, just but tough" action against any student who tries to inflame racial hatred on campus.
Spillane, who rarely involves himself in the issues of a single school, called a meeting of about 40 students, parents and administrators at the school to discuss the series of recent incidents involving white students displaying Confederate flags and one burning a cross.
Although he did not cite it specifically, Spillane took issue with a statement by the county NAACP president over the weekend complaining about "an attitude of tolerance for this kind of behavior."
"We don't have any attitude of tolerance for any of this behavior," Spillane said. "While we cannot guarantee any future behavior of any individual students, what I will guarantee, and what we can guarantee, is our immediate response to those actions. Our reaction will be swift, just but tough."
Spillane, who runs the area's largest school system, with 188 schools and 130,000 students, usually relies on principals or area superintendents to deal with issues at individual schools.
In this case, he said, he felt it was important to personally denounce the incidents as "an embarrassment" to the community.
Spillane has been criticized by some black leaders in the last year for failing to do more to improve minority achievement. Both NAACP President L. Marie Guillory and School Board member Robert E. Frye (At Large), the board's only black member, have called for his resignation.
Principal Donald J. Weinheimer Jr. outlined a chronology of events at yesterday's meeting, beginning two weeks ago with a fight between a white student and a black student. In addition to previously reported incidents involving students waving Confederate flags or wearing them on their clothing, he mentioned three other "drive-by" displays of the flag, one as recently as Friday.
He also said that the two white brothers who first waved the flag had received threatening phone calls and their lawn had been damaged.
In all, four white students and two black students have been suspended for disruptive behavior, one twice. A fifth white student was arrested by Fairfax City police and charged in the cross-burning; Weinheimer has recommended that he be expelled.
About 10 other students have been sent home or barred from school for a day in the effort to reduce tensions.
Several dozen white and black students will meet today with school system counselors, and a group of black parents will meet with area superintendent George Stepp on tomorrow.
Several parents said they feared the incidents were inspired by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and others, including Frye, called for changing the nickname of the school's sports teams from Rebels to something more innocuous, like Falcons.
"White supremacist groups have identified Fairfax High School as a place that's fertile for this kind of action," said Harun Akbar, father of a sophomore. "It's been targeted, and they're trying to build a fervor."
School officials and some white students said the recent incidents have been the work of a handful of troublemakers, perhaps 20 out of 1,566 students.
"Some of the kids, in my opinion, clearly are racist," Weinheimer said. "But we don't have a lot of that."
Nate Rasmussen, 17, a senior who is student government president, complained that media coverage has painted the school as a cauldron of racial intolerance, when in fact most students condemn the incidents.
"We're not going to stand for a cross-burning on our front lawn," he said. "We feel that the majority of students view the acts that have gone on as reprehensible."