Community shares bias, racism concerns

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan hugs Brenda Siegel of Newfane after a forum on hate crimes and bias at Oak Grove School in Brattleboro.

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BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan is hosting forums to grasp how communities feel about the response to hate crimes and bias incidents.

"The remarkable thing," he said Thursday at Oak Grove School, "is we're not here to speak. We're not here to lecture. We're here to listen and hear stories that are happening to folks that frankly we're never going to hear about in Montpelier for a variety of reasons."

He said he is trying to learn how widespread incidents of bias and racism are in Vermont.

More than 35 attendees came to Oak Grove for the fourth forum in a series. They were asked not to name anyone in particular episodes or make accusations.

One complaint involved a "thin blue line" flag that hung in front of the Brattleboro Fire Department station downtown. Seen as a way to honor law enforcement but also a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, some people deem the flag insensitive.

"I'm trying not to, forgive me for using this term, let little things get blown out of proportion if the conflict doesn't involve someone behaving inappropriately," Town Manager Peter Elwell said about the flag, which he said was taken down within an hour if not minutes of his hearing a complaint.

Elwell said the town hired a human resources professional earlier this summer and employees will soon be getting a full day of training on implicit bias rather than just a few hours.

Reporting incidents

Assistant Attorney General Julio Thompson said a bias incident could violate state or federal laws.

"Most people do call 911, but sometimes something happens and they don't call right away," he said. "They can call our office under the bias reporting system. They could call the Human Rights Commission who will put them in touch with the right person."

Shela Linton, co-founder of The Root Social Justice Center, said some resources are more effective than others.

"Right now, if I was to have a situation, I would probably go to my state's attorney if there was an issue," she said. "And that's only because I have a relationship."

Steffen Gillom, president and co-founder of the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said his group is working on two cases in the county.

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"The issue is when you get into these spaces, there are a lot of policies within those police departments for handling complaints and things die there all the time," he said, adding that it can be "very intimidating ... to be hit with these policies. In theory, they're supposed to work great. But in practice, they're not so smooth."

Brenda Siegel of Newfane, who ran for governor, said she experienced difficulties reporting to police that anti-Semitic things were said to her online when she showed support for former state representative Kiah Morris, who resigned last year citing racial harassment.

If people do not want to go to the police, Donovan said, "We need to fix it."

"Your first call doesn't have to be to the police," added Thompson.

Capt. Garry Scott, director of fair and impartial policing and community affairs for the Vermont State Police, said his group is working toward making changes for the better.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham advocated for providing bias training to police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

"That's hopefully going to change the culture," she said.

Donovan said the training will help keep the conversation going.

"It's the application of that new knowledge that is so incredibly important," said Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

The Rev. Lise Sparrow from Guilford Community Church urged police to tell stories of holding people accountable. She said she feels the media could be an asset.

Thompson said out of all the forums, the one in Brattleboro focused most on solutions.

"It's clear," he said about reporting incidents, "people need to have more information about multiple points of entry so they can feel safest, maybe the one that feels most fruitful for them."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.