The Black Lives Matter flag will be raised at South Burlington High School after an assembly for students and staff on Feb. 1. The event is planned in honor of Black History Month (February) and as a symbol of inclusion for students of color in the South Burlington community. The student-led initiative has the full support of the school board. By taking this action, South Burlington joins Essex, Burlington, and Montpelier high schools in raising the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.

To ensure that city officials and the community at large are informed about the decision and the reasoning behind it, South Burlington School Superintendent David Young appeared before to the city council at the Jan. 22 meeting. He also released a public statement Jan. 25.

At the council meeting, Young noted that he had also spoken with all district staff, the South Burlington Rotary Club, and Police Chief Shawn Burke. Young stressed how the act of raising the Black Lives Matter Flag aligns with the district’s larger work, particularly the district goals, such as disposition for lifelong learning, citizenship, and personal development. In addition, he said the action also ties into ongoing staff work on equity and anti-bias education.

In his press release, Young quoted an excerpt from a Statement of Intent composed by the Black Lives Matter Flag Raising Committee, comprised of students, staff, and school board members, that clarified the purpose of the flag raising.

“Our purpose is to engage our school community in hopes that all will leave with a greater understanding of racial inequity, more specifically, its impact throughout Vermont and our country as a whole. The flag will be a reminder that history, including Black history, is not just something of the past. History is constantly being made. This flag and this movement are a part of it.”

The flag raising follows a year-long process where the student-led Student Diversity Union (now Student Justice Union) worked closely with South Burlington High School to develop and present a proposal brought before the school board on May 16, 2018. The proposal was authored by Student Diversity Union Co-presidents for 2017-18 Thabitha Moruthane, Aida Arms, Vice President Will Jewkes, Secretary Rachel Ambaye, and Communications Director Samuel Premsagar. The group requested that a small amount of time be allotted to raise the flag according to official flag raising procedures, time for a student-led assembly explaining the significance of the flag, and a request that the flag be raised every Black History month thereafter. A petition the students circulated regarding the proposal had also garnered 300 signatures of support within two weeks and was presented at the May meeting.

At the June 6 school board meeting, before about 20 student advocates, the board unanimously approved the South Burlington High School Student Diversity Union’s request to have the Black Lives Matter flag fly at the high school during Black History Month every February.

“We are proud of our students and their willingness to engage all of us in a courageous conversation about race,” Young said in his statement. “The Black Lives Flag Raising is an important, student-led event. We see it essential as part of the District’s larger work, work that includes staff training in anti-bias education and implicit bias. We are committed to building a school district that allows all students to show up in our schools as their full selves.”

Students hope that the Black Lives Matter Flag Raising will “generate a courageous, community-wide conversation about racial inequity and recognize a month of celebration of the achievements of Black Americans and their contributions to our country.”

Support not unanimous

The issue of the Black Lives Matter flag raising has not been without contention, however. One of the most vocal opponents has been resident Sheldon Katz, who presented a statement to the school board at their Jan. 2, 2019 meeting. Katz argued that it was inappropriate for the board to approve this action given that “BLM is a political organization that takes stands on controversial political issues.” Katz went on to quote from the Black Lives Matter platform with a particular focus on Israel. Katz said, “BLM ‘fight(s) the expanding number of Anti-BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) bills being passed in states around the country’ which, it asserts, ‘harm the movement to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.’ The BLM flag therefore represents the view that the State of Israel occupies an area it calls Palestine, that the alleged occupation should be ended, and that the State of Israel should be boycotted, divested, and sanctioned.” Katz requested that if the board continued with the move to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, that they should also fly the flag of the State of Israel to show support for Jews.

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Katz’s statement was contested at the following school board meeting Jan. 16 by Sally Borden, Executive Director of KidSafe Collaborative and a parent of South Burlington School District graduates. She lauded the board for sticking by their decision. Schools must be a “beacon of light in our community,” she said. Borden noted that she was well aware of the controversy surrounding Black Lives Matter, but felt that these sentiments were founded “in misunderstanding that is exacerbated by hyperbole.” While some believe the flag raising is a political statement, for Borden, “it represents a statement of equity and inclusiveness of racial sensitivity toward students and staff,” especially students of color who can feel isolated and/or marginalized in a district that has a majority of white students.

South Burlington High School Principal Patrick Burke has also voiced his support for the decision to fly the flag.

“As principal I stand with the students in their desire to help the district send a message to our students of color that they matter. 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.”

Further information is available on the South Burlington School District website: www.sbschools.net, including the flag raising committee’s statement, additional articles, and a list of FAQs. The school board meetings from May 16 and June 6, 2018 can be viewed on RETN where the student presentation and subsequent board approval occurred.

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