The Black Lives Matter flag was raised over South Burlington High School on Friday after months of discussion, planning, public input, and protest, topped with a campus media ban.
The event was planned in honor of Black History Month 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. South Burlington joins Essex, Burlington, and Montpelier High Schools in raising the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.
The flag-raising follows a year-long process where the student-led Student Diversity Union (now Student Justice Union) worked with South Burlington High School to develop and present a proposal to the school board on May 16, 2018. The school board approved the proposal on June 6, 2018.
On Friday, temperatures reached into the twenties following a frigid run of polar temperatures as scores of students exited the school at 3 p.m. and gathered around the flag pole facing Dorset Street.
The media was relegated to the sidewalk on Dorset Street following a directive from Superintendent David Young, who on Tuesday emailed the media the following message.
“The Black Lives Matter Flag Raising and accompanying events at South Burlington High School on Friday, February 1, are closed to the public, including the media. All events are designed for students and staff only.
“Media are invited to park across the street from SBHS in the City Hall parking lot and watch from that side of Dorset Street. The outside ceremony will be taking place between 3 and 3:25 p.m.”
The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Vermont Free Press issued a joint statement protesting the decision to bar the media from school grounds. Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, also confirmed with South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke that the sidewalk in front of the school was a public right-of-way and that Young could not restrict the media from that side of Dorset Street.
On the morning of the event, Burke sent out a message on Twitter saying that a press conference would be held at City Hall at 3:45 p.m. after the flag-raising featuring student representatives, who would answer questions from the media.
As the 3 p.m. flag-raising drew closer, maintenance personnel parked plow trucks across each entrance to the school from Dorset Street. An older man walked by reporters waiting for the ceremony to begin and voiced his opinion of the Black Lives Matter flag being raised at the school.
“Is that flag going to touch the flag I buried my father in?” he asked angrily, adding, “And children. They’re using children…” before moving on down the sidewalk.
Once the students assembled around the flag pole, Principal Patrick Burke spoke via a public address system set up outside.
“I am so proud to be part of the South Burlington High School Community today!” he said.
He welcomed everyone and introduced Rachel Ambaye of the Student Justice Union, who addressed the crowd and thanked the students for their attentiveness during the day’s assemblies inside the school.
“Before we raise this flag, I want to remind you all of a quote by the late activist Malcolm X, ‘The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,’” Ambaye said. “Thank you everyone for being here today, to celebrate, to learn, and to prepare for our future. Now, let’s raise this symbol of inclusion as we kick off Black History Month.”
Against a cloudless blue January sky, the American flag was lowered, and the Black Lives Matter Flag was attached to the halyard and both flags were raised to the top of the flagpole as students and staff cheered and whistled loudly. There was a minor accident on Dorset Street directly in front of the school as one car rear-ended another stopped in traffic.
And in three minutes, the flag-raising was over.
“Thank you everybody, and have a great weekend!” Burke shouted into the microphone. “Great job, South Burlington High School! Thank you, Student Justice Union, thank you school board!
Most media outlets opted out of the city hall press conference Friday following the flag-raising, and only The Other Paper and a local TV news station attended.
Burke moderated the press conference, but the students answered almost all of the questions. They were Rachel Ambaye, Elijah Hines, Thabitha Moruthane, Sophie Bock, and Lucia Pendolino of the Student Justice Union.
Hines was the designated spokesperson for the group, but each student weighed in at different points during the press conference.
There has been vocal opposition to the Black Lives Matter flag-raising by members of South Burlington’s Jewish community, who have pointed to the movement’s perceived anti-Israel platform (Black Lives Matter supports a Palestinian state) and rhetoric against law enforcement. Last week, three letters to the editor appeared in The Other Paper calling for the school board to reverse its decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at the school, saying the board had overstepped its authority.
The students were asked about the organization’s platform on Israel and whether they had discussed the issue in deciding the raise the Black Lives Matter flag.
“We know that Black Lives Matter has various platforms, and they are, or they appear to be, pre-Palestine, which a lot of people see as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic,” Hines said. “But, they do work with many other Jewish organizations, and many Jewish organizations do fully support Black Lives Matter with some reservations on how they word their stances on pro-Palestine versus the two-state solutions.
“From what I know, many Jewish activists also do support a two-state solution just at a different stance from Black Lives Matter,” Hines said. “So, I feel that as an organization itself, being labeled as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel as a whole for wishing for a two-state solution or end to a conflict isn’t necessarily rational in terms of distancing (Black Lives Matter) as an entirely anti-Semitic group and ideal.”
As for banning the public and media from the event, Burke took the question, saying the decision was driven by safety concerns.
“We have a recent history of unfortunate rhetoric directed at students,” he said. “My students have recently been victims of hate crimes, stalking, assaults on campus, relative to them taking a position that was somewhat connected to the issue of race, and so I, along with my superintendent of schools, we own that decision. It’s one of those decisions we had to make in advance of today.”
Burke was asked if he had received any threats against the school or students in the days leading up to the Friday flag-raising.
“No, no threats,” he said. “My inbox is empty. I’ve received some questions from a handful of parents, but they were offered in good faith and I was able to answer them, but definitely no threats. I would say it’s 20 to 1, positive to negative.”
Burke added that the school is not an open facility, that concerts and sports events are open to the public, but what happens in the classrooms and at assemblies are not public events.
The students were asked what they want the public to know about the decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at their school.
“For me personally, I want to express gratitude to the community, because so many people have been so kind about what we want to do and how we wanted to show inclusion in our community and in our school,” Hines said. “And I think without the community, I think it would have been a lot tougher and taken a lot longer.”
“I think we want people to be proud to go to SBHS, and this flag is a symbol that we are inclusionary, and that everybody regardless of the color of their skin can be proud to be a member of the South Burlington community and a student at SBHS,” Pendolino added.
As for the opposition, Moruthane said she believes the goal is to bring the school and community together.
“All lives can’t matter until black lives do,” she said. “And we wish the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ was true in the sense that all lives in society have value and are treated equally, and right now, that’s not the case. So, I think to people who are against what we’re doing, I think I’d want them to keep in mind that we’re trying to have an inclusive environment and we believe that comes with the Black Lives Matter flag being raised since racism is a problem within our community and we wanted to address that and we felt this was the best way to do so.”