All it took was five minutes. “Meet by the trophy case,” a student at Jefferson Forest High School in Forest, Va., posted on Snapchat this month. Soon, about 20 students dressed in black and camouflage gathered in the hallway for an impromptu photo shoot with yellow Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” banners and Confederate battle flags. “Welcome to JF,” the caption reads.
In another photo, posted to Snapchat on Feb. 4, a girl poses in the school cafeteria with a Confederate flag draped over her shoulders. The photo’s caption reads: “If you got a problem with everything then suck it up, it’s history and heritage, wanna fight history then talk to Hitler I don’t care.”
The incidents have resurrected concerns about the high school’s culture and have come amid soul-searching on campuses across the nation about the persistence of racist imagery — images that once dwelled on the printed pages of yearbooks and that now spread like a toxic wildfire on social media.
The Bedford County School Board addressed the incidents Thursday, with Superintendent Douglas Schuch reassuring those in attendance that administrators were taking the matter “very seriously,” county schools spokesman Ryan Edwards said.
“Our schools will use this incident to examine historical practices around spirit week and other school activities, to make sure that we steer clear of situations that may unintentionally encourage learners to engage in behavior that others may find offensive,” Schuch said in a statement.
Those pictures were taken during the school’s “Country vs. Country Club” spirit week, when students were encouraged to dress up as “a farmer or a highty-flighty high-society-type,” Edwards said.
School Board member John H. Hicks Jr. proposed a ban of “any symbols of racism or oppression such as the Confederate Flag or KKK symbols or anything of that nature” in response to the incident.
Board members did not respond to requests for comment.
People who live in Forest, just west of Lynchburg, describe it as being nestled between woodlands and farms, a quaint area that attracts upper-middle-class families. The stands at high school football games are usually packed, and some who grew up there return to raise their families.
By all standards, Forest appears to be a close-knit community. But Jefferson Forest High has struggled to address incidents of racist behavior among students in recent months. Of the 1,400 students who attend the school, 85 percent are white.
Lyman Connor, the parent of a 10th-grader at Jefferson Forest, said he has reported multiple incidents to school administrators in which his daughter, who is African American, has been called racial slurs and taunted. But he said that “little has been done.”
In December, a Jefferson Forest student was suspended for posting a video of himself holding a gun and shouting racial epithets in his bedroom.
Edwards said that school administrators have received three reports of racist behavior since August and that administrators moved to “discipline students accordingly.” The school did not disclose specific disciplinary actions to The Washington Post because of student privacy concerns.
Some Jefferson Forest parents and former students said racial bullying happens so often that some have learned to accept it as part of the school’s culture. Talya Connor, the ex-wife of Lyman Connor, said their daughter shrugged when she saw the spirit week photos. “She was like, ‘This is just what happens here,’ ” Connor said.
Cenise Bryant, who is African American and graduated from Jefferson Forest in 2010, said that she was called racial slurs by students when she attended and that students were permitted to wear Confederate battle flag clothing to school. “The school is so blind to this behavior that teachers didn’t pay attention until there was a fight,” she said.
The school system allows Confederate battle flag memorabilia on campus unless it causes a disruption to students or staff, Edwards said. No one reported a disruption when the photos were taken Feb. 4, he said.
Some students and parents are quick to defend Jefferson Forest as a welcoming, inclusive environment.
“Am I burying my face in the sand? Does racism occur here? Sure, but racially you’re not going to find a perfect school or workplace,” said Patti Kese, the Jefferson Forest PTSA president and a part-time employee of the school. “Racism isn’t running rampant here.”
Tiffany Carey, an African American 12th-grader at Jefferson Forest, said she hasn’t witnessed racist behavior at the school. During spirit week, some of her friends apologized for wearing the Confederate flag and explained that, to them, the flag represents Southern traditions such as sweet tea and hunting, she said.
The flag incident created a tense atmosphere at school, Carey said. Students were uneasy with how people were representing Jefferson Forest and were careful to be considerate. Someone posted notes in the girls bathroom that read, “You’re beautiful” and “You’re kind.”