Epsom School Board votes, 3-2, to keep Confederate flag in mural

  • The Confederate flag is seen in the lower right corner of a mural just outside the gymnasium at Epsom Central School. After drawing protests from some faculty members, the flag on the mural was the subject of intense public comments following the district’s school board meeting Tuesday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Confederate flag on a mural just outside the gymnasium of Epsom Central School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 07, 2017

Shawna Bateman wishes she could tell her two sons that racism in America doesn’t exist anymore, but she knows she can’t do that.

Instead, she wants a mural at the Epsom Central School that includes a depiction of the Confederate flag to be a teachable moment for the community and its students.

“I would rather my kids come to me and say, ‘What is this symbol? Why am I seeing it on the news? Why is there so much hate?,’ and have that teachable moment than just completely bypassing it,” she said. “I don’t think any kid is going to look at that and just all of a sudden become a hateful individual.”

Bateman was one of 40 people who piled into the Epsom School Board meeting Tuesday night for almost two hours to discuss the removal of the Northern Virginia battle flag – known today by many as “the Confederate flag” from a mural. The motion to keep the mural was eventually passed, 3-2.

The vote came after parents, students and school officials argued for or against changing the mural that includes a Virginia battle flag in lower right corner.

The mural to depict American history was not directly paid for by taxpayers – it was paid for by a former school board member who decided to use his stipend to commission it between 10 and 14 years ago.

The mural was brought to the attention of the school board by a few teachers at the school, including Jan Santosuosso of Northfield, who worried that the flag would be offensive to members of the community.

Dave Cummings, chairman of the school board, opened the meeting by saying it was meant to discuss whether they could give “more context and adding to it to better depict the civil war.”

He added that he is “of the mind that erasing an element of history takes us down a dangerous path.”

Santosuosso stated that she had no intention of “erasing history,” just proposing something more historically accurate and less controversial. She proposed two alternative designs – one photo of two flags, the confederate flag and a union flag together, a plaque about the civil war and the dates it occurred, 1861-65. The other design removed the flag and replaced it with two blue and gray military caps.

“I feel that symbol has changed,” Santosuosso said. “And we see it today, now more of a symbol that is associated with groups that we probably don’t want to have associated with our school. It’s associated with the KKK; it is associated with a white supremacist and hate group.”

Ralph Weeks of Epsom described the flag’s removal or modification as “adulterating our history.”

Board member Alison Scheiderer, on the other hand, said the flag “sticks out like a sore thumb,” and she’d like to see it gone.

“That symbol has developed a lot more connotation than just being a battle flag,” she said.

Steven Patterson, a history teacher at the school, said the most important task would be to ask the kids what they thought and use it as a teaching tool.

“As a school teacher, I’ve got a hundred or so kids that come into my care every day, and they’re my priority,” he said.

More than anything, Bateman said she wanted people to understand what the Confederate flag has come to represent today and urged the community not to be ignorant of the decision.

“Use it as a teachable moment,” she said. “Teach the ignorance instead of perpetuating it. How are you any better than the people that use that flag as a horrible symbol for things that I think most of us don’t even agree with?”

Editors Note: This story  has been clarified to reflect that the motion to keep the Northern Virginia battle flag in the mural was passed 3 to 2. Board members Lucie Weeks, Michael Wiggett and William Yeaton voted in favor of keeping the flag, with Alison Scheiderer and chairman Dave Cummings dissenting.