Molly Banik

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WESTMINSTER — A sharply divided Bellows Falls Union High School board Monday night tabled a request from a high school student to have the school start flying a Black Lives Matter flag at the school.

Grace Waryas, a junior at the union high school, made the request Monday night in front of the board, and about 30 members of the community who turned out to oppose her proposal.

Waryas said that racism is “under the radar” in the Bellows Falls community. “Racism is still a big issue in our community,” she said, and flying the flag would be “a stand against racism.”

The board was divided 5-4 on the issue, with the slim majority agreeing to table Waryas’ request, essentially saving it for further discussion. Several school directors said they wanted the school to adopt a flag policy before any final decision was made.

But four directors made it clear they oppose the idea, and Bellows Falls Union High School Chairwoman Molly Banik, who doesn’t vote often unless to break a tie, added her voice against the proposal. The directors said they feel the Black Lives Matter flag is divisive and too political for an “academic institution.”

Waryas said the flag would send a message that the school is welcoming to students of all races and backgrounds. Waryas said racism exists in the school and in the community.

There are 19 students of color at the high school out of 302 students, according to demographic information from Superintendent Andrew Haas. In the district, there are 69 students of color in a total population of 1,087. Students of color include Black, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian and others.

According to Waryas’ research, the Bellows Falls community is 93 percent white.

Waryas said she polled the high school’s student council and received nothing but support. She said she had launched a petition drive on the BLM flag matter, and received 92 signatures, out of 302 students. She said the flag has already been donated, and that it would fly below the American flag and the Vermont flag, which currently fly in front of the school.

Waryas noted that several other high schools in Vermont are flying the BLM flag, including Brattleboro, Burlington, Colchester, South Burlington, Montpelier. Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington also flies the Black Lives Matter flag.

Voting to table Waryas’ request were Director Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham, Director Deborah Wright of Rockingham, Director Margo Ghia of Rockingham, Director David Clark of Westminster and Director Pamela Johnson-Spurlock of Grafton. Lambert had suggested tabling the issue. Directors said they were uncomfortable approving Waryas’ request until there is a definite policy regarding flags and special requests in place, so that the school has consistency.

Voting to deny the request were Banik, Director Jason Terry of Rockingham, Director Brenda Farkas of Rockingham, and Director June Streeter of Westminster.

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“All lives matter, as simple as that,” said Banik.

Clark said he would be interested in the school flying the Ukrainian flag, but he said there needs to be consistency in what flags would be allowed to fly.

“It’s a very, very interesting ask,” said Clark, who advocated for the school’s policy committee to look into the issue. “I appreciate your passion,” he told Waryas.

Farkas said she finds the Black Lives Matter flag “offensive to me” with its imagery sometimes including a clenched fist.

Waryas said the official Black Lives Matter flag does not include a clenched fist.

The school directors, most of whom were meeting in person at the high school, were joined by a large gathering of residents.

Harold Noyes of Athens spoke against flying the Black Lives Matter flag. “All of us are equal,” he said. “We don’t need any other groups.”

Also speaking against the BLM flag was Paul Banik, the husband of Molly Banik, the board chairwoman.

One man said the flag would “create more animosity, make it worse.”

“A lot of good people died for that flag,” one man said, referring to the American flag.

Black Lives Matter, and the murder of George Floyd, prompted a large community parade and gathering of more than 300 people through the streets of Bellows Falls in June 2020, in part organized by students at the high school. And last November, issues of race and a visit by Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, prompted a walkout by Banik, who said she took issue with Reed’s claim that Vermont schools were teaching “whitewashed history.” Banik later apologized.

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