Talking tolerance: Raising the flag, opening the conversation?

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Over two dozen students, faculty members and district residents attended Tuesday’s school board discussion on raising the Black Lives Matter flag at Champlain Valley Union High School. The school board will decided on potentially raising the flag at its March meeting.

By MADELINE HUGHES
Staff Reporter

Tuesday night, school board members weighed the question of whether to allow students to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Champlain Valley Union High School. The discussion came after a student-led group  – the Racial Alliance Committee  – asked the board to approve raising the flag at its February meeting.

Over two dozen students, faculty and other district residents voiced a variety of opinions at the board meeting, expanding upon their dialogue about race. They asked the question: Would raising the Black Lives Matter flag encourage discussion, or divide the school?

“We need deep structural change… the Black Lives Matter flag could be a catalyst for that change,” said Peter Langella, CVU’s librarian and advisor to the Racial Alliance Committee.

Students Sydney Johnston and Noel Gates said that raising the flag could diminish conversations.

“Noel and I have discussed this many times with many different people, and we do not agree that (the flag) should be raised,” Johnston read from their prepared statement. “We believe that this movement does not bring us together, but further divides us all… Politics is a gateway to hatred, and involving it in schools is not the correct thing to do. It starts arguments which leads to people disliking each other, and that is not what CVU is about.”

She went on in her letter to express that “students with a right wing opinion feel nervous to go up to a teacher or anybody about this because they feel that they will be rejected,” she wrote.

Board members made it a point at the beginning of the meeting to talk about flag policies at other schools, and how the district could potentially develop a policy for flags other than the United States and the Vermont flags to be raised at district schools.

“This is really the first opportunity the board has had to talk about the proposal,” board chair Lynne Jaunich explained. She asked the board how they could proceed with the discussion and raising the flag.

Board member Dave Connery suggested that the board could move ahead and allow the students to raise the flag while a policy was being developed.

“We could act reasonably without a policy in place,” he said, adding it could take weeks or months to approve a policy.

Two students from South Burlington High School’s Racial Justice Union – Elijah Hines and Sophie Bock – offered an outside opinion to the board and their support to CVU’s Racial Alliance Committee.

“The conversation our board was having when we proposed this to them was not procedure, it was different,” Bock said. “The other side of the conversation was being talked about a lot more with resistance. I would applaud your open mindedness to hearing what these students have to say.”

No decision was made after over an hour of discussion where over a dozen audience members spoke. But the board decided to warn potentially raising the flag as an action item for the next board meeting on March 19. The board wants to vote on raising the Black Lives Matter flag, and create a policy about flags that can be raised at the school going forward.

“You all have been heard,” Jaunich reassured those in attendance at the end of the meeting. She also added comments could be sent to the board by email to cvsdboard@cvsdvt.org.

What does a flag mean?

Students on either side of the decision to raise the Black Lives Matter flag spoke about what flags meant to them.

“Flags are central to our unity as a nation, and are central to our unity as a school,” student Peter Antinozzi wrote to the board, and said at the meeting. He asked the board to consider having the Black Lives Matter flag join other flags in the cafeteria that represent groups at the school.

“The Black Lives Matter flag represents only one group of the population, while the U.S. and the Vermont flags encompass everyone at this school,” he wrote. “So why should we treat the Black Lives Matter flag as if it does represent us all?”

Elyse Martin-Smith, a student member of the Racial Alliance Committee, challenged that meaning, saying that when she sees the American flag, she is reminded of a country that would not accept her two fathers’ love as a marriage until recently, and a country based on racial oppression. She added the Vermont flag reminds her of the state’s predominantly white demography.

“In contrast though, the Black Lives Matter flag spreads a message of empowerment and voice to those who might not receive it from the Vermont or American flags,” Martin-Smith said. “By raising the Black Lives Matter flag it would help spark a dialogue about the issues within our society, but also help give power to those whose voices might feel silenced by our country’s past and present struggles with respect, especially in terms of race.

“In conclusion, adding flags of movements to the flagpole would help validate the concerns the movement addresses and fill in missing gaps in what our country represents,” she said. “Hopefully there will be a point where our flag represents our country’s values, but we are not quite there.”

Other members of the Racial Alliance Committee supported Martin-Smith’s view.

Sidney Hicks, a member of the group, encouraged people to use national and local resources to educate themselves on the Black Lives Matter movement. And she invited the students with opposing views to the committee’s meetings, which take place on Wednesday mornings.

The Racial Alliance Committee “is about harboring discussion, and tolerance, and I want to invite you personally to come any time,” Hicks said. “It doesn’t have to be us teaching you, it can be an open discussion and that’s the goal.”

“I know that political beliefs can be very isolating, but race should not be isolating,” she continued. “So, that’s in my opinion why we should raise the flag. In class, whether teachers or students are conservative or liberal, once we raise the flag then we can talk about it.”

Through the faculty’s lens

Longtime CVU staff member and advisor to the Gender, Sexualities Alliance Group Rahn Fleming spoke up at the meeting.

“I have sat with students,” Fleming said as he was choked up on the verge of tears. “I have listened to kids be afraid to walk down the halls of a school I cherish and have worked for 18 years because of the color of their skin, the gender they were born into or their sexual orientation.

“I don’t even know what that feels like – by fluke of genetics I was born a mutt from the British Isles and live in America,” Fleming said. “To hear people say to one another ‘We see you, you matter, we love you’… Love is not a zero sum game. What I’m asking for is a teachable moment.”

Langella wrote a letter to the board in support of raising the Black Lives Matter flag, citing recent incidents at school that made students feel unsafe.

“Regardless of the motivation, swastikas were drawn and the n-word was written many times,” he wrote. “The community response was mixed. There was outrage, sadness, and solidarity, but, in my opinion, there was far too much apathy, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even disagreement about why such symbols and words could be so deeply vicious and offensive.”

He went on to write, “Raising the Black Lives Matter flag at CVU is an essential step to open up the conversation about race in our community to those who would rather not participate; who would rather keep that negative peace.”

Langella mentioned that the staff is working on discussing these issues with students. He said the library is starting a discussion group to “provide consistent time and space to normalize conversations about social issues and to cultivate equity, diversity, and inclusion within the CVU community.”

Fellow librarian Christina Deeley also made a statement, saying that the library is working to get more books and resources for students and others to talk about race.

“Ignoring the racial realities of our country is no longer an option,” she said. “We can show that we support our students and families of color by raising the Black Lives Matter flag. In addition to showing our support for our students and families of color, the flag provides our community with an opportunity to open the dialogue both at school and at home about race and racism.”

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