Members of South Burlington High School’s Diversity Union came before the school board on May 16 to propose raising the Black Lives Matter flag during Black History month each year beginning in the 2018/2019 school year. According to the students’ proposal, their goal is to “create an accepting, equitable, and empathetic environment at South Burlington High School.” They believe that raising the Black Lives Matter flag will affirm the community’s commitment to inclusivity.
The proposal was authored by Student Diversity Union Co-Presidents Thabitha Moruthane and Aida Arms, Vice President Will Jewkes, Secretary Rachel Ambaye, and Communications Director Samuel Premsagar. The group requested that time be allotted to raise the flag according to official flag raising procedures, along with time for a student-led assembly explaining the significance of the flag, a request that the flag be raised every Black History Month thereafter beginning in 2019, and that the high school provide the materials needed to raise the flag, including the flag itself. They also asked that this item be placed on the board’s June 6 agenda. A petition the students circulated regarding the proposal garnered 300 signatures of support in two weeks.
South Burlington would not be the first school in Vermont to raise the Black Lives Matter flag. Essex High School has plans to raise the flag for the remainder of the school year; Burlington High School and Montpelier High School have also raised the flag. Board member Martin LaLonde said he had the opportunity to attend the assembly accompanying the flag raising at Montpelier High School and felt that it was a key component both in building awareness around the flag and celebrating the moment.
SDU officer Samuel Premsagar said that growing up biracial, he has experienced countless instances of racism and wants to work toward a better future for his community. Will Jewkes said as a white person, he always needs to be recognizing his privilege and that building awareness around this movement should not be something only people of color care about. Elijah Hines, an SBHS SDU member said, “It is a struggle to be a black person here … there is a lack of understanding … I will not be the only person who appreciates the flag and it allows us to finally have a voice.”
South Burlington High School (SBHS) Assistant Principal Lissa McDonald read a statement on behalf of SBHS Principal Patrick Burke who noted that he supported the students making the presentation and stood with their desire “to send a message to our students of color that they matter. As principal I support them in their goal of raising awareness that South Burlington is a changing community and I accept their challenge that I do more as an educational leader to address racial inequities that exist in our system.”
Burke noted that he has been meeting with the Student Diversity Union throughout the year and has been kept informed of every step in their process. In addition, Burke wrote, “the South Burlington School Board’s Citizenship Ends Policy (1.4) states, “Students will understand the impact of history, government, law and the economy on self and society in order to contribute to their community and participate in local, state, and federal government in an informed manner by…supporting, participating, and/or initiating socially responsible actions to benefit the local and global community.” Thus, this policy supported what students were doing that evening.
The students were supported by their advisor Carrie Premsagar, who also served on the SBSD Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee alongside district employees Dean Melen, Susie Merrick, and Stuart Weiss.
Coordinator of the Healthy Schools program, Merrick said, “We applaud the courage of this [the students’] statement and further value the clarification students offered in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is, as students noted, ‘an affirmation of the value of black lives in response to the racism that infiltrates every institution of the United States’.”
Merrick added, “We believe the members of the SDU are modeling skills named in the District’s Ends including, but not limited to, “making decisions based on knowledge, thoughtful debate, and reason,” “expressing themselves creatively and effectively,” “respectfully advocating for self and others” and “supporting, participating, and/or initiating socially responsible actions to benefit the local and global community.”
However, resident Gerry Silverstein took issue with some of the statements made by students. He requested that statements such as “racism is endemic” be prefaced with, “it’s my belief” that racism is endemic. Silverstein said he wanted to see compelling literature and data points to support their statements. He didn’t think raising the flag would achieve the students’ desired goal and that people “don’t need to be reminded of what injustice is.” He stressed that “all lives matter” and encouraged the board to seek public opinion on this proposal.
After the presentation, board members offered their thoughts. Bridget Burkhardt said she was impressed by the students and was in full support. She also wondered what was missing in the wider community that could help students of color feel more welcome. Steve Wisloski, a former member of the military, said he had come into the evening with traditional flag procedures and customs as his background and wasn’t sure how he felt about placing an additional flag on the same pole as the American flag. “My inclination was to say no,” Wisloski said, “but after hearing your presentation, my heart has changed.”
The board wondered where jurisdiction fell for this decision and requested David Young confer with Burke and bring a recommendation before the board, but they also felt it was important to weigh in and thus, this item will be on the agenda for potential action at their June 6 meeting.
The entire presentation can be seen on RETN.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent