Editor’s Note: Last month, as we closed our series on the BLM flag in Vermont’s schools, we opened the conversation, inviting Vermont’s students to share their views. We received a diverse set of commentaries, but we don’t claim that the ideas collected here represent the balance of opinion across Vermont. Students’ attitudes and experiences are just as complex and varied as those in their communities, and only a handful are included here. But while this project is far from comprehensive, we do hope that it demonstrates the sincere engagement of many students in Vermont, and the possibility of a more civil discourse.
We want to thank every student who shared their point of view. Thank you also to the teachers who connected students with this project or used our articles on the flag to generate discussions in their classrooms. Students or teachers interested to participate in the Underground Workshop can view our current menu of opportunities here. For more information, or to get involved, please email Ben Heintz, the Workshop’s editor, at [email protected]
Student Editor’s Introduction, by Gloria Kigonya of Colchester High School
Last summer, the Colchester School Board voted to raise the Black Lives Matter flags at schools across the district, after members of the English Language Learners group and the Social Justice Alliance came together to address the school board with a letter.
The school board raised the flag for a nine-month duration, following the flag policy of the Colchester School District, starting on July 7, 2020. The board took down the flag in late September, 2021, roughly a month after the start of the school year. Shortly afterward, on September 21, many students attended the school board meeting in hopes of putting the flag back up.
The BLM flag is back up until the end of December, after a 5-0 vote in support of the students. However, the board chairman, Craig Kieny would like to see a different flag flown in its place, one that is more inclusive of all minorities, or a more general flag that says “end racism.”
Raising the BLM flag was a win, at least temporarily, for many students at Colchester High School. But several issues have yet to be addressed inside the schools themselves.
The BLM flag at Colchester schools shows an awareness of the work that needs to happen, however without having these important conversations inside the schools, the raising of the flag will continue to be a performative act.
For many Vermont high schools, the process and aftermath of raising the Black Lives Matter flag has led to uncertainty and division. There has been a range of responses from communities, students, and families. Some think the flag shows inclusion and makes their school a safe place for students of color. Others argue that BLM is a political movement that does not belong in a school setting.
In this collection of student commentaries, Vermont’s students explore the story of the BLM flag at their schools, and what it means to them and their communities.
Interviews by Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School
Commentary from Abigail Raleigh, Ava Hubbard, Destinee Pigeon, and McKenzie Vincent, Missisquoi Valley Union
Interview by Girija Griffin, Montpelier High School
Commentary from Linzhi Cardinal, Essex High School
Commentary from Ellie Gregory and Maddie Saunders, Missisquoi Valley Union
Documented by Emilia de Jounge, Burr & Burton Academy
Commentary from Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy
Commentary from Madison Guyette, Cody Walke, and Desirae Devost, Missisquoi Valley Union
Commentary from Hamdi Mohamed, Winooski High School
Interview by Girija Griffin, Montpelier High School
Commentary from Grace Garwyas, Bellows Falls Union High School
Commentary from Ashton Martel, Autumn Bailey and Aivvary Ross, Missisquoi Valley Union
Commentary from Caleb Surprise, Kira Schafer and Kasandra Reynolds, Missisquoi Valley Union
Essay from Delana Underwood, Burr & Burton Academy
The Questions The Flag Raises
To put up the flag at a school doesn’t automatically mean that the school is antiracist. There are too many systems in place, and there is too much lack of education. Raising the flag without any further action would be like slapping a Band-Aid on a wound that runs much deeper than it appears.
There were also a lot of questions to consider about the actual steps that we wanted to put into place. How could we make it so that the action wasn’t performative? Could we facilitate discussions aiming to inform students about what the Black Lives Matter movement means? Who would take the lead in doing so? Should we get BIPOC community members to help out?
The meetings where we discussed racial issues were awkward, because we were a group of mostly white people talking about how to solve racism. It felt strange to be sitting in a circle and staring at each other while deliberating over something that we can never truly understand, because so few of us had actually been affected by it.
At the moment, my school is very divided and the relationship between liberal and conservative students is very tense. There is a good chance that raising the Black Lives Matter flag would exacerbate the situation. Is it worth the risk?
From Cecilia Luce’s commentary in favor of raising the flag at Thetford Academy
Should we discuss Black Lives Matter in our classrooms?
Sophia: I think politics should be in school, especially regarding issues of Black Lives Matter. Considering how under fire it is in the current world, and in order for people to learn about it and be able to talk about it, they need to have constructive discussions about it in a school environment.
Francesca: I disagree, actually. And I think that political issues should not be talked about in school because students might feel alienated because of their political beliefs… Some kids have different political beliefs at home and they might feel uncomfortable or they might feel pressured to talk about it, even if they do not want to talk about their political beliefs. Students may feel as if they will get shamed if they do speak up for what they believe in.
Sophia: It doesn’t necessarily have to be about political parties. I think it’s more about learning about what’s happening in the world, in regards to politics. So there will be discussions based on parties and like different thoughts of different parties, especially surrounding this movement and this issue, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on one side or the other, just the general topic so that people are in a constructive and safe place to learn about it. Without bias.
Francesca: I think it could be interpreted as that. But also, I want to say how I think it’s hard to have an unbiased conversation, especially in such a liberal state, that people think it’s an unbiased conversation, but I think it’s honestly hard for some people to have that.
From a conversation at Burr and Burton Academy, documented by Emilia de Jounge
Controversial flags do not provide a safe environment for all students. There are many conflicts that come with having a Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag hanging above any school.
For example, at our own school, Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School, located in the northwestern part of Vermont in the small town of Swanton, we had a petition going around in the spring of 2021 to get the BLM flag hung.
A student got into a heated argument with another classmate about the petition, and that caused a huge disruption in class. One person was yelling while the other person was interrupting them repeatedly.
The lesson that the teacher was trying to teach was put on a hold, and every student in that class was unable to focus or continue their work. Students in that class felt unsafe and unsure of what was going to happen next.
From the commentary of Abigail Raleigh, Ava Hubbard, Destinee Pigeon, and McKenzie Vincent
School is a public place that is supposed to be seen as a safe environment for those who attend it. Even before the flag was first raised at Missisquoi Valley Union on May 20, 2021, it caused separation in the school community.
We could neither choose to voice our support or disapproval regarding the flag without being targeted by the opposing side. When the petition to fly it was first started in the early spring of 2021, a student at the school who was not in favor threatened and yelled at one of the petitioners in their classroom and told her that her opinions were not valid.
Students have even gone so far as to stop being friends with those who do not have the same viewpoint as them, regardless of how strong their bond was previously. A girl at our school abandoned a five year relationship with a few friends just because they did not agree with her.
Petitions in favor of continuing to fly the flag have been met with an equal amount of petitions going against it. Students cannot sign either without being harassed by the other side. Regardless of whether we believe that the flag should stand or not, the polarity that flying it has caused has made it difficult to feel safe, respected, or welcome during our time at school.
From the commentary of Madison Guyette, Cody Walke, and Desirae Devost
…and the benefits
The BLM movement originated in July 2013, but took off in 2014 when the hashtag BlackLivesMatter was created following the death of Trayvon Martin. The BLM flag was originally created for campaigning against violence and systemic racism towards black people. The BLM flag
supports diversity by bringing these problems into light and empowering many people to join the
fight against racism in the world. At our school the BLM flag supports diversity. Due to our low levels
of minorities at MVU, the flag is a good reminder to all students to be respectful of everyone.
From the commentary of Maddie Saunders and Ellie Gregory
Empowering symbols like Rosie the Riveter, the Abenaki flag, and the LGBTQ flag have been
a part of communities and schools for decades. The flags themselves might not have always been a
part of how we represent diverse groups of students, but schools in Vermont have been teaching about
women’s rights, indigenous people, and LGBTQ equality for years. As philosopher George Santayana
once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
From the commentary of Ashton Martel, Autumn Bailey and Aivvary Ross
Recently, changes have been made to Missisquoi Valley Union High School (MVU) to better show support for students of diverse backgrounds. Daily land acknowledgments have been added to the morning announcements to give recognition to the local Abenaki community. The school also has a mural celebrating the native culture and flies the Abenaki flag. MVU is also showing support for the LGBTQ+ students with a pride themed walkway in the parking lot. The walkway was painted by the student Pride Alliance, with the goal to be a welcoming sign for students in the LGBTQ+ to show that they aren’t alone. MVU welcomes diverse students.
From the commentary of Caleb Surprise, Kira Schafer and Kasandra Reynolds
What is the long-term impact? A Conversation at Montpelier High School
So do you think it was more like a symbol of support and less of something that impacted school?
I feel like in a way, yes. But it’s not like we’re learning a lot about it… we’re just kind of going on with our day learning about regular subjects. Like in ‘Intro to Global Citizenship’, which is a freshman course, I’m pretty sure yeah, we are learning about like, immigrants and stuff, but that doesn’t really have to do with… Black people. It has to do with people from around the world, yes, but not about just Black people in general in the United States.
Yeah, I get where you’re coming from, but I also just think, at the time, I definitely think there was a lot more conversation about it because, I was there when they originally raised the Black Lives Matter flag and students spoke about it and their experiences, and I think that did give like a lot more education for people at the time when they did originally raise it.
I think we’ve seen a lot of change… with the Racial Justice Alliance, just having that space and having a space for BIPOC people on Fridays… and having a white ally space as well, just to learn about how to be a better ally. And I think we’ve began to move in the right direction, but while creating these spaces, it also creates a space for us to move more in the direction we need to go. And so I hope, as a school system and as a town, we continue to raise BIPOC voices and to listen to them and to… actually validate them, unlike how it’s been in the past with just… racism.
I agree with what Alex said. But like, in the community, I think it still needs to be raised a little more, because the I’ve definitely experienced racism in the community, not like largely, but a few times I have, which shouldn’t happen especially as a teenager-slash-child. And it’s not fair to be discriminated against because of your skin tone. You can’t help what you look like.
From a conversation between two students, at Montpelier High School, interview by Girija Griffin
Can the flag move us toward a more healthy discussion?
Three days after the school board meeting, on September 24, the BLM flag was torn down and stolen from Hiawatha Elementary School in Essex Junction. In a WCAX article, police said that the investigation and evidence haven’t given them any leads, and the case remains unsolved. Hiawatha Elementary had back up flags in case of an emergency and were able to quickly raise another flag. The event left many in the community upset and unimpressed with the behavior.
This controversy has divided us, but at the same time, it has brought our community together. The conversation hasn’t been a healthy one. It has brought aggressive debate into calm environments. It has caused a divide within the school and the Essex community. However, it has also brought good. The flag has made students of color feel welcomed and accepted in EWSD schools during a time of crisis. It has made students feel like they are being listened to, and that their voices matter.
From the commentary of Linzhi Cardinal, Essex High School
One School in Focus: Voices from Enosburg Falls
by Mei Elander
As of right now, Enosburg Falls High School does not have a BLM flag raised. Given the recent events between Enosburg and Winooski, the subject and environment has been tense and many are guarded. Some students who were asked to comment explained that they would rather not talk about politics.
A few Enosburg students and staff were willing to comment upon this subject. Superintendent Lynn Cota did not respond to requests for an interview.
Freja Stovgaard, a foreign exchange student from Denmark explained that Denmark’s opinions in regards to the BLM movement were extremely different from those at Enosburg. She explained that People from Denmark who are anti-BLM are seen as extremists. She admitted that this division made it harder to connect to others. “…people just kind of want to fit in in high school,” she commented, adding that students may pick on each other or be non-accepting due to differences in opinion.
A junior at Enosburg, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from their peers, said that she believed there should be a BLM flag at EFHS which would help show “awareness” in the matter.
“I think a lot of people in our school community genuinely don’t believe and see racism as a real problem,” she said. “There is a certain lack of education about the problem, specifically about institutional racism.”
Apple Maddox, also a junior at Enosburg, said that “…some people interpret the BLM movement as anti-white, instead of it’s purpose: to call attention to injustice towards POC.”
Ruby Sartwell, a senior at Enosburg, has a different perspective. She feels that “displaying the flag should be a personal choice. We shouldn’t force BLM upon people because it is still an organization… I don’t think a government paid for organization should favor one way or the other.” She feels that, regardless of her personal views, flags involving specific organizations should be discouraged in public schools. Not because of her thoughts on BLM, but because of the implications it may bring flying a separate political flag in a public school.
Many feel this way, and it’s an understandable justification. There’s a fine line between showing support for a belief, and showing support for a separate organization.
Joseph Donarum is Enosburg High School’s principal. “The concern I have about raising a black lives matter flag is that if it doesn’t match exactly to the…equity work we need to be doing in the school,” he said. “It’s just a piece of cloth hanging from a flag.”
Donarum said classrooms should not be used as a “soap box” for political movements, but it is “important to acknowledge that we have things to work on in this world and it’s our responsibility to bring those to light.” He clarified that we shouldn’t push opinions on a topic, but rather bring awareness. He is afraid of the flag being “used as a weapon against the people in this community who are doing the real work.”
“The American flag…should incorporate all the flags, the black lives flags, the rainbow flag,” he said. At the same time he acknowledged that it may not represent those ideals yet.
Mr. Donarum said that the incident between the two schools, “brought about an opportunity for both Winooski High School and Enosburg Falls High School…to engage in exercises of intense self-reflection.”
Anthony Sorrentino, the athletic director at Enosburg Falls High School acknowledged that “we all have different biases and different beliefs that we’ve kind of developed over our lives.” He said schools must be careful as to what they choose to represent.
Sorrentino emphasized that the staff at Enosburg was here for the students. “…we work for the kids and if there’s students that have an opinion… and want to see that flag on campus then they start that conversation by going to those trusted adults…then we start to, you know, make those moves happen.” He was very emphatic about letting students take movements like this head on.
Tom Plog is a history and social sciences teacher at Enosburg. Mr. Plog, without disclosing his personal views on the issue, commented on the difficulties surrounding flying a BLM flag in schools in general.
“There could be community backlash at any school, including parents or community members speaking up or speaking out (which obviously they have a right to) at board meetings or other functions in opposition to a BLM flag being raised at any school,” he said. “I also don’t think it is political; I think that groups opposed to equality are politicizing it.”
For Further Reading : Our series on the BLM flag in Vermont’s schools
by Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School
by Bruce Pandya, U-32 High School (now attends NVU Johnson)
by Maddie Ahmadi, Essex High School
by Annika Heintz and Morgan Manley, Mill River High School
by Josie Gawrys, Castleton University
by Caitlin Balón and Vanessa George, Rice Memorial High School
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